Food fraud: Canadian greenhouse edition

Ann Hui of the Globe and Mail reports that a few years ago, federal food inspectors were walking around the warehouses of the Ontario Food Terminal in Toronto – the nerve centre where much of the province’s fresh produce is bought, re-packaged and sold – when they noticed something unusual.

emersonIn the “farmer’s market” area, where only Ontario-grown produce is meant to be sold, the inspectors saw large cartons of greenhouse peppers with conflicting labels. The outside of the boxes had “Product of Canada” stickers, next to visible signs of damage on the cardboard – bits of paper and glue, as if another sticker had been peeled off. And stickers on the inside of the box read “Product of Mexico.”

That discovery in January, 2012, led the Canadian Food Inspection Agency into a three-year investigation of the company behind the peppers, Mucci Farms – the largest such probe in the agency’s history.

After executing three search warrants at the company’s headquarters in Kingsville, Ont., and poring over its computer records and internal e-mails, CFIA investigators pieced together evidence that, between late 2011 and early 2013, Mucci had been selling imported products as Canadian – putting hundreds of shipments of mislabelled produce worth more than $1.4-million onto Ontario grocery store shelves.

In one e-mail described in a court document and obtained by The Globe and Mail, one of the company’s directors, Danny Mucci, responded to a message from an employee about a shortage of Canadian mini cucumbers by telling the worker: “you know what to do to fill…it’s only 30 cases.”

Mucci International Marketing Inc., Mucci Pac Ltd. and two of its directors (Mr. Mucci and Joseph Spano) pleaded guilty in June of this year to eight regulatory offences – including one count against the company for selling food in a “false, misleading or deceptive” manner – and were fined $1.5-million.

Mucci’s lawyer, Patrick Ducharme, said in an interview that the mislabelling was not intentional, and that, given the volume of Mucci’s 1,200-employee operation, the transactions made up “a very small part of what they do.” He also emphasized that they pleaded guilty to regulatory offences, not criminal ones. Criminal charges against Mucci International and Mucci Pac and the two directors of defrauding the public, and defrauding Costco, Loblaw and Sobeys – to whom Mucci sold the produce – were withdrawn.

The case sent shockwaves through the country’s agriculture industry, and the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers called it a “unique” precedent. “My hope is that it’s an isolated case,” the marketing board’s manager, Rick Seguin, said in an interview.

If the best you can do is hope, then OGVG is in for trouble.

I helped – or did – set up the OGVG on-farm food safety program way back when OFFS wasn’t cool – about 1998.

We got a couple of papers out of it, along with reams of anectodes and observations and every time I’ve blogged about them, the new types at OGVG have threatened to sue (that’s a pic, upper left, of my 14-monty-old grandon #2, Emerson, instead of tomatoes; sue that).

I’m used to that.

And since I’m just a lowly former academic, the legal types tell me, you can’t afford it.

So I’ll let CFIA and the Globe run with it.

powell_greenhouseI had nothing to do with it.

Can only sit back and sigh.

For years, experts have been sounding the alarm on mislabelling and food fraud. Increasingly, they say, criminal organizations around the world are targeting the food system, intercepting supply chains and deliberately misrepresenting or adulterating products – and costing the food industry between $10-billion and $15-billion (U.S.) each year, according to the U.S.-based Grocery Manufacturers Association.

And, according to conversations with experts in the Canadian food industry, scientists and regulators, the problem is widespread within our own borders.

But even the CFIA does not seem to know just how widespread it is. Individual cases provide an incomplete picture. And the 74 cases of non-compliance with labelling laws from the past year published on the CFIA website – a number the agency say has held steady over the past five years – present only a portion of incidents where the agency has found companies breaking the rules. It includes only the cases in which the products were actually seized and detained or disposed of, but also includes technical infractions, like language or font size on packaging.

When asked how prevalent the problem is in Canada, the agency cited U.S. data that show fraud affects about 10 per cent of all food products globally. It also acknowledged it has not yet conducted a widespread survey of its own to understand its full impact within Canada.

In his years as a lawyer representing companies in intellectual property and anti-counterfeiting cases in Canada, Lorne Lipkus has seen cases of food fraud ranging from counterfeit basmati rice (knockoffs of a high-end brand) to fake ginseng.

“You’d think: ‘How expensive is it to grow a bag of rice,’” he said. “But if someone’s making something and making a profit out of it, somebody’s counterfeiting it. … Everything we do in Canada is reactive. We have very poor laws, compared to other countries. And we haven’t had any government involved in the longest time – I’m talking decades – willing to provide the resources to law enforcement to do anything about counterfeiting.”

In EU countries, border officials have the authority to seize and destroy goods they believe are counterfeit. In Canada, customs officials can detain a product, but it is then incumbent on the complainant to undertake court action and to pay for the goods to remain in detention until the case is heard – which can cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

Most alarming, he said, is that the scope of the problem is not understood because no agency is specifically looking for fraud.

On the issue of mislabelling, experts also point to policy initiatives abroad – such as a U.S. proposal to require companies to have food fraud prevention programs – as evidence others seem to take the issue more seriously.

Although the CFIA has not conducted a full survey of the issue in Canada, James Crawford, acting associate vice-president of operations with the federal agency, said CFIA receives about 40 complaints a year about possible food misrepresentation.

In an interview, Mr. Crawford said the agency takes food fraud seriously. He also said Canadians are generally safe from adulterated food – pointing to a Conference Board of Canada study in 2014 that ranked the country’s food system as the safest of 17 OECD countries surveyed.


That was a bullshit survey with criteria based on nothing.

On fraud, he said, “we’re proactive and reactive.”

He said CFIA staff conduct regular inspections of imported and domestic food – including daily inspections at meat processing plants. Still, he was not able to say what percentage of products undergoes such scrutiny for labelling.

“We can’t inspect every … import or domestically produced food in Canada. It’s impossible. That’s why we have a risk-based plan. And it allows us to focus on where we think the high risks are.” Some of the things the agency takes into account in prioritizing inspections include food type and likelihood for illness, and each company’s track record of compliance.

Even countries with the most aggressive approaches faced the reality that food fraud is not easily confined by borders.

In Canada, much of the action on the issue has been industry-led. Large retailers in Canada like Loblaw or Costco have programs to safeguard against adulterations, requiring suppliers to subscribe to standardized food safety programs, and undergo annual audits.


Audits and inspections are largely shit.

As for Mucci, it is on a three-year probation during which CFIA inspectors will have free access to its premises and computer records. Mr. Ducharme says the company is doing everything it can to ensure accuracy of its labelling, including appointing a compliance officer and reviewing all of its processes.

He believes the CFIA targeted Mucci in part to set an example. “I don’t think it’s insignificant that the place that was targeted for the big investigation was the biggest in the industry,” he said. “They know Mucci’s the biggest. The best.”


What are gloves protecting? The food or the handler?

This one time, in graduate school, a harvester told me that he loved wearing gloves when he picked tomatoes because it kept his hands from getting dirty.

Another time, in graduate school, a greenhouse manager told me he had convinced his boss that food safety was really important and the company invested in installing full restrooms in the greenhouse — and fully stocked a closet with latex gloves.

The manager trained all the employees on why clean hands and gloves were important.

A week after the training session he saw an employee urinating on the outside wall of the restroom.

With his gloves on.

Or maybe gloves are there to protect the food handlers from the food (thanks to Carl Custer for the cartoon).


Former student does CanadaGAP

While Heather Gale, executive director for CanadaGAP, earned recognition for her work at the annual Safe Food Canada Symposium earlier this year, it’s technical manager Amber Bailey (the one holding the certificate, nee Luedtke ) that got my attention.

amber.CanadaGAP_exec_awardAmber did her Masters degree with me, graduating in 2002.

I sorta threw her into the Ontario greenhouse project, and she exceled.

Here’s some of her publications.

Powell, D.A., Bobadilla-Ruiz, M., Whitfield, A. Griffiths, M.G.. and Luedtke, A. 2002. Development, implementation and analysis of an on-farm food safety program for the production of greenhouse vegetables in Ontario, Canada. Journal of Food Protection. 65: 918- 923.

Luedtke, A., Chapman, B. and Powell, D.A. 2003. Implementation and analysis of an on-farm food safety program for the production of greenhouse vegetables. Journal of Food Protection. 66:485-489.

Powell, D.A., Blaine, K., Luedtke, A., Morris, S. and Wilson, J. 2001. Risk management and communication: Enhancing consumer confidence in Governing Food: Science, Safety and Trade ed. by P.W.B. Phillips and R. Wolfe. McGill-Queen’s University Press. Montreal, pp. 133-148.

Luedtke, A.N. and Powell, D.A. 2002. A review of North American E. coli O157:H7 apple cider outbreaks, media coverage and a comparative analysis of Ontario apple cider producer’s information sources and production practices. Dairy, Food and Environmental Sanitation, 22: 590-598.

Saudi Arabia greenhouse farms closed for using sewage water

Saad Al-Muqbil, general director of the General Administration of Agricultural Affairs in the Eastern Province, has said that the administration barred one farm from selling its produce due to its use of sewage water in irrigating crops.

The farm owner was fined SR50,000 and 14 greenhouses in his farm were dismantled. This resulted in an estimated loss of SR300,000 to the owner.
Local consumers had saudi.sewage.feb.14complained of vegetables sold in one of the well-known local grocery shops tasting foul and had voiced their concern about the quality of the crops. Shoppers demanded more intensive health control and supervision of fruits and vegetables sold in the province. 

Berry, greenhouse growers work on food safety

The California Strawberry Commission is in the midst of its second food safety risk assessment.

The Packer reports the commission itself — not third-party auditors — is doing the assessment, following the harvest gradually from south to north. The work began in late 2011, and should be completed sometime this year.

Groups like Ontario greenhouse veggie growers require that all members must pass an annual third-party food safety audit.

Third-party audits alone can be a useful tool but not enough. Some individual greenhouse operations participate in additional auditing and traceability schemes, but not everyone; and any commodity is only as good as its worst grower.

The California strawberry types are focusing on field issues such as water, wildlife, compost and labor because there are the major potential sources of foodborne illness singled out by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and others.

Carolyn O’Donnell, communications director for the Watsonville-based commission, said, “We have a hand-harvested crop, so we’re dependent on making sure farm workers who are the last people to touch strawberries before consumers do are aware they have a real important step in the food safety process.”

The same group of commission representatives is doing the assessment in every region of the state.

On its website, the commission recently expanded its food safety section at

The commission is also working with berry growers in Oregon and Washington to support their efforts in food safety education.

Following a deadly E. coli outbreak in July 2011 that was the result of a deer incursion in an Oregon strawberry field, growers in the state decided to take preventive measures in preparation for the 2012 season.

Laura Barton, trade development manager with the Oregon Department of Agriculture said, “It doesn’t matter what size grower is involved. It only takes one berry to impact the entire industry. One of the challenges we identified when we started talking about this was how to find all of the smaller growers. It’s not like there is a list.”

How on-farm food safety programs get developed – it’s the people, and data

There was this time, we thought we’d killed Chapman.

Ben and I went along with Uncle Denton to the Canadian Horticulture Council meeting in Montreal in Feb. 2003. I had chaired a national committee on on-farm food safety program implementation – and the advice was completely ignored – Chapman and I had done years of groundwork with Denton and the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers, and we agreed to share a room at the annual meeting to cut down on expenses.

There was a couple of receptions and I still remember Ben and I asking Uncle Denton for drink tickets. We then retired to a hotel lounge and I knew trouble was ahead when Chapman asked for a cigarette.

He then went to the bathroom.

He didn’t return.

He showed up a few hours later, seemingly intact.

Denton had forgotten that story (Denton’s on the right in that pic with my grandfather, Homer) when I called him a couple of weeks ago, to thank him for the opportunity to develop on-farm food safety stuff back in 1998 with the Ontario Greenhouse Vegetable Growers. I’ve been using those anecdotes (not the ones about Chapman) and lessons learned a lot lately – seems like too many people are in a food safety time warp.

Guess it brought up a few memories for Denton, who wrote this in Sept.’s issue of The Grower:

As you journey through life you meet the occasional person who makes a real difference.  Dr. Douglas Powell is one of those – to say the least.

Doug called me recently to talk about the early years.  He was new in the On Farm Food Safety business when I was working with the Ontario Greenhouse vegetable group.  Doug was at the University of Guelph and I would talk to him about the phone call I didn’t want to get.  This would be the imaginary call from a senior’s residence wondering why all the occupants were very sick after consuming a fresh salad, and if the cause may have been the greenhouse tomatoes. I never got that call—thank God–but I wanted to be ready.  And that readiness included a strong response indicating we had an On Farm Food Safety program and proof we were capable of tracing our greenhouse product. We’ve seen several incidences in the past few years with certain fresh veggies and berries that almost ruined the industry and certainly crippled those markets for a year or so.

From the University of Guelph and the beginning of the On Farm Food Safety program, Doug has moved to Kansas State University where he is associate professor of food safety. He is still very much in the industry – just relocated to a different university — and still writing newsletters, hence the reputation of “the guru” of On Farm Food Safety.

Doug has remained a good friend over all these years. We developed a bond as we developed an On Farm Food Safety program for greenhouse vegetables and more.  Doug’s philosophy was to keep it simple.  He could relate to growers, and had an uncanny ability to make the complicated science of bacterial contamination simple and understandable. Early on, he received a little help from Dr. Gord Surgeoner.  These were the seeds of the On Farm Food Safety program in Canada, spreading from Ontario Greenhouse to CHC and to most vegetable growers across Canada.

I can still see Doug in an old T-shirt and jeans, holes in both, and running shoes–that was his fashion statement. Of course, his description of toilet paper “slippage” resulting in fecal contamination on your finger was priceless, but his crude description helped to break down the mystery of bacterial contamination by food handlers with dirty hands. Seems to me I got a T-shirt from Doug with “Don’t Eat Poop” written on the front.  Doug continues to be a great communicator, a fair goalie, poor at politics but great at On Farm Food Safety and raising little girls.

Thanks, Doug.  I am proud to say I knew you back when.

And I knew Chapman, way back when.

Greenhouse vegetable food safety: Watch those dirty boots

The April 2008 issue of Journal of Food Protection contains a cool paper on a survey of Salmonella and E. coli at a greenhouse tomato farm in Mexico. During 2003 and 2004 the authors sampled over 1600 product and environmental samples, before, during and after a couple of environmental disturbances: a flood and the entry of wild animals (opossums, mice and sparrows).

The authors isolated Salmonella Montevideo, Salmonella Newport, and strains of the F serogroup  from tomatoes and go on to state that almost all of the Salmonella Newport strains were isolated from samples collected during or immediately after the flood.

Analysis by pulsed-field gel electrophoresis revealed that some Salmonella Montevideo isolates from tomatoes, opossums, and mice displayed identical genetic patterns, suggesting that these wild animals represented a potential source of contamination.

The fun part of paper is that the authors suggest that dirty work shoes were also thought to be an important vehicle for dissemination of Salmonella into (and possibly throughout) the greenhouses (especially after being worn during the flood incident):

Contaminated worker shoes may be vehicles for contamination with enteric pathogens, from either outside the greenhouses or from one facility to another. The levels of E. coli on personal shoes were higher than those of working  shoes were before the flood. However, there was a higher  level of contamination with Salmonella and E. coli on  working shoes compared with personal shoes after the flood.

The authors go on to say that sanitary mats intended to reduce pathogen movement may not be all that effective the real-world application:

Working shoes were provided by management to the workers to wear inside the greenhouse at the suggestion of our research group after finding that personal shoes were positive for E. coli, even after shoes received a disinfection treatment with quaternary salts solution (800 ppm) on a sanitary mat. However, working shoes were not used exclusively inside the greenhouse, but were also worn to go from one facility to another. Shoes have seldom been mentioned as vehicles of contamination in food production areas. This dissemination mechanism of enteric pathogens should be considered as an important control point  during working procedures in greenhouses.

It’s unclear whether this is just a notable finding, or if it represents a real risk in moving pathogens around food production systems, and needs some further investigation.  Probably don’t want to use boots to stomp garlic though.