If you trust the packaging date listed on the meat or poultry you buy at the grocery store, you could be fooled.

Some retailers change the labels of meat and poultry packages in order to convince consumers their products are fresher than they actually are, a Radio-Canada hidden-camera investigation has found.

One butcher in Quebec, who works at an IGA grocery store, spoke to Radio-Canada on the condition he was granted anonymity.

He said that every morning, before the store opens, packaged meats are taken from the shelves and sometimes repackaged, complete with a new date.

“When the product is expired, when it's three days old, we check to see if it looks OK and smells OK. Then we repackage it, and put it back on the shelf,'' he said.

“In our IGA, we stretch it one more day. Depending on the store, depending on the managers, sometimes they stretch it by another three days.'

Another butcher who spoke to Radio-Canada said repackaging meats with a new date isn’t only done at IGA.

“To my knowledge, everyone is doing it … In all the stores I've worked at in my life, everyone did it,'' he said, also speaking on the condition he remain anonymous.

Illegal practice

Repackaging meats to extend their shelf life is illegal.

Federal food regulations say the date on the label must reflect when the meat was originally packaged.

The Quebec Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food recommends that packaged meat be consumed within two to three days of packaging.

  • For more information on packaging dates, click here.
  • For more information on packaging laws, click here.

“The big problem is the level of bacteria inside the meat,” said Monique Lacroix, a professor at the National Institute of Scientific Research.

Meat packaging labels

Packaged meats are pulled off the shelves every morning at IGA, and in some cases repackaged and relabelled with a new date, a source tells Radio-Canada. (Radio-Canada)

Radio-Canada investigative reporters bought packaged pieces of meat, kept them cool, and then took them to a lab where samples were tested for three forms of bacteria.

The two steaks purchased were acceptable.

Two pieces of chicken contained bacteria — one piece had four times and the other had 35 times the number of bacteria acceptable for human consumption.

”There is a risk of the presence of pathogens, and if the meat is not well cooked, there is a risk of food poisoning,” Lacroix said.

The Quebec ministry said it deplores that some merchants are relabelling packages, adding that the process is difficult to detect.

“Inspectors verify the aspects that are verifiable with the information we have. This is not a situation that is easy to observe because, inevitably, it does not happen in the hours when the inspection is done,” said Johanne Mainville, a ministry spokeswoman and safety adviser.

Repackaging practice unacceptable, Sobeys says

Sobeys, the owner of the IGA brand in Quebec, refused to comment on the results of Radio-Canada’s laboratory tests. Sobeys said it uses the services of a private company to inspect its facilities and undergoes ministry inspections.

As for the practice of repacking meats to extend their shelf life, Sobeys condemns it.

“It’s something we do not approve of. It’s something we do not support. It’s an isolated incident because it is not at all a procedure or policy that the company promotes to its merchants,” said Sobeys' Quebec spokesman Alain Dumas.

The company said it has reminded all of its stores to follow the rules and that staff ensure that the date on the label correctly states when the meat was first packaged.

This story was originally produced for Radio-Canada by Julie Vaillancourt and François Mouton.