A Marketplace investigation has revealed date tampering
at North America's largest distributor of Italian foods, Santa
Maria Foods. Products made or imported by the company - including
Mastro meats and olive oil, DeCecco pasta, and Galbani Marscapone
cheese - are sold at Sobey's, Loblaws and Dominion, among
A false sense of security?
Many shoppers rely on the 'best before' date displayed on
all foods. It's an assurance of freshness and quality. For
some perishable items - such as cheese - the 'best before'
date may even relate to safety.
But the 'best before' dates on some products you find in
your favourite grocery store are useless.
Marketplace spoke with nearly a dozen people, including
former employees of Santa Maria Foods, two Italian manufacturers
and Canadian retailers who sell Santa Maria's products across
Two former employees agreed to appear on camera for this
story. They insisted that their identities be disguised. They
told us that there are hundreds of thousands of dollars at
stake - and they're afraid of reprisals for speaking out.
They also believe consumers need to hear what they have to
| Three steps to removing
a 'best before' date, as related to Marketplace by former
employees of Santa Maria Foods:
1. Remove ink date with acetone
2. Wipe off ink
3. Re-label with a sticker - new date often adds two months
to shelf life
"I saw mortadella that had expired, the cryovacs being
ripped off and the product being washed," one of the
former employees told Marketplace. "It's a cooked product
and what happens with cooked meats is a white slime forms
on the outside of the meat and it can be washed off and then
recryovacked and shipped out to consumers."
"In the case of pastas," the former employee continued,
"DeCecco pasta... had a date stamped on the bottom of
the box in black ink. Of course they couldn't get the black
ink out of the cardboard, so they'd take Liquid Paper, cover
it up and put a computer-generated sticker over the top...
and ship it to the customer."
Company's products across the country
Santa Maria is a big company with offices and warehouses
in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver. It specializes in Italian
food products and manufactures its own house brands, under
the Mastro name. The company also imports products such as
coffee, pasta and mascarpone cheese, mainly from Italy. Products
with a shelf life of 90 days or less, including some cheeses,
must have a 'best before' date. Pasta, oil and coffee don't
need one. But if they do carry a 'best before' date, it cannot
Santa Maria's clients include small specialty stores and
major grocery chains. The company products are also used by
caterers and in restaurants.
"With the mascarpone cheese," a second former employee
told Marketplace, "it comes from Italy with a date stamp
on it. What has been done is a chemical... has been used to
wipe off the date and thereafter they stick on a 'best before'...
date afterwards in paper."
The former employee described similar practices for pasta
and olive oil.
Checking the products
We heard the same story from several former Santa Maria employees.
Still, we wanted to check the story for ourselves. We picked
one product - mascarpone cheese - to investigate. We tracked
it from the factory in Italy, to the retail shelf in Canada.
First, we called the manufacturer, Galbani, in Milan. They
confirmed that every tub of Galbani mascarpone cheese that
leaves their plant has a 'best before' date ink jet stamped
on the bottom of the tub.
Next, we went shopping at small stores and some big chains
in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario. For a full year
- and as recently as the middle of November - we went looking
for samples of the product that no longer had the ink jet
We found numerous tubs of mascarpone that had been tampered
with bearing Santa Maria labels. The ink jet dates were wiped
off and new 'best before' date stickers were put in place.
It is not illegal to sell a product after its 'best before'
date. It is illegal to change the date the manufacturer puts
on the package.
No tampering at Santa Maria warehouse:
Marketplace met with Eddie Zilli, the executive vice-president
of Santa Maria Foods Corporation in Toronto. We showed him
examples of date tampering, including samples of Galbani mascarpone
cheese. We asked him why the ink stamp on the bottom of the
tub was gone - replaced by a sticker.
"Well sometimes what some people in the
back are telling us is it comes in with the date smudged,
or it's not very legible," Zilli explained. "So
we make sure we put a date on it."
We asked Zilli why the new date would be later than the original
date - by as much as two months. He suggested that sometimes
disgruntled employees are to blame. Here's part of the conversation:
Jim Nunn: Well, sir, we have witnesses who indicated
that this was a long-standing practice at your Vancouver plant,
it wasn't an isolated incident, that it wasn't being done
by disgruntled employees, that they were being ordered to
do it by a manager.
Eddie Zilli: Well, that's news to us. Like I said,
when we found out, we put a stop to it right away.
Jim Nunn: When did you find out?
Eddie Zilli: I believe it was at the end of the summer.
July or August.
Jim Nunn: Of 2000?
Eddie Zilli: That's right.
Jim Nunn: This is a letter to Mr. Rosati, your president,
from an employee of your company. It's dated May 1999 and
it says, 'While employed I was witness to the recycling of
meat and cheese products. This practice in my opinion is extremely
illegal and very hazardous to the company as a whole.' So
would you now confirm that you were aware of the practice
a year earlier?
Eddie Zilli: Well, we make sure the products go out
dated properly and we don't encourage redating the product.
We're against that. We're federally inspected plants and I
mean we have strict rules and regulations we go by and that's
the norm in here.