A major western Canadian grocery chain has been selling produce advertised as "B.C. Grown" that came from the United States or elsewhere, CBC News has found.

Several examples were discovered in two Save-On-Foods locations in the Vancouver area, as well as at other stores.

"It's annoying, it's very annoying," said Linda Delli Santi, executive director of the B.C. Greenhouse Growers Association.

"I've heard of it many times. Unfortunately, we have no real control over what the retailer does with the product once it gets into their store."

Tomatoes, spinach, apples, red and orange peppers and cilantro were all marked as being from British Columbia on Save-On-Foods signs above the bins, while the fine print on stickers or twist ties revealed they were from the U.S., Mexico or Israel.

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CBC News found Save-On-Foods had the highest number of produce signs incorrectly labelled 'B.C. Grown.' (CBC)

The chain, part of the Overwaitea Food Group, has more than 80 stores in B.C. and Alberta. The Save-On-Foods outlets that had incorrect signage are on Steveston Highway in Richmond and on Cambie Street in Vancouver.

"'Buy local' and 'support your local farmer' is definitely a trend," said Delli Santi. "They are cashing in on it … even if it is not intentional."

Although greenhouse products can be available many months of the year, most B.C. produce is not, she said: "We all know you can't grow potatoes here in January."

Various retailers checked

CBC News also found single examples of incorrect signage at other stores: pears at a Safeway outlet and potatoes at a Superstore. One location of Kin's — a B.C. produce retailer — also had several bins mislabelled as produce from British Columbia.

In all, seven chain stores run by various companies were checked randomly after two shoppers complained to Go Public about their local grocers. Save-On-Foods had the most errors.

"Consider if you are shipping something up from California or Mexico — the carbon footprint that it leaves and the lost nutrient values," said Egon Frank, who shops in Richmond. 

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Frank grows his own produce and is passionate about buying local whenever possible. He said he discovered mislabelled produce on two occasions at his local Safeway store.

He complained both times and said he's not seen any discrepancies since his last complaint. CBC News also found no examples of incorrect labels at that location.

Mary MacDonald said she found incorrect signs several times at her local Save on Foods store in Prince George before and after alerting management there.

"I have complained … asked for a response and never heard back," MacDonald said.

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Egon Frank wrote to Go Public after finding mislabelled produce in his local Safeway store. (CBC)

"I suspect many people rely on the larger signs and probably cannot even read the small [sticker, twist tie] labels. It is misleading to the public and doing a disservice to B.C. farmers, in my opinion."  

Save-On-Foods spokeswoman Julie Dickson said in an interview the incorrect signage was unintentional. As a result of the findings by CBC News, she said the retailer is making changes.

"When we got the word that there were some issues that we needed to address, we took that very seriously … and we've already taken steps to make sure we are doing the right things," Dickson said.

Signs not changed

She explained that signs on produce bins listing the product, price and origin are generated from information in the central computer at Overwaitea's distribution centre.

When available, she said, the company buys B.C. products first and only updates the computer information system-wide when the price changes.

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Save-On-Foods spokeswoman Julie Dickson tells Go Public reporter Kathy Tomlinson that the chain will be making improvements.

However, when a shipment of B.C. apples runs out, for example, the centre will start to ship apples to stores from elsewhere to replenish the supply. It is up to each store, Dickson said, to change the sign on the bin.

"It may be that we are not changing the sign as quickly as we are adding the inventory back into our system," Dickson said. "Anytime there's human beings involved — regardless of everyone's best intentions — there's the chance that a mistake can happen."

She said the company is still deciding exactly what it will do to improve its practices.

"We are a local company and our first commitment is to supporting local," Dickson said. "There's a whole team of people who are looking at this now from another point of view and saying, 'How can we do it better?'"

Kin's — the produce chain where CBC News found discrepancies at one Richmond location — also promised improvements.

"In order to rectify this situation, that store was contacted immediately and was asked to double check the origin of all of its products, including the items you mentioned, such as Italian parsley, other types of parsley, baby dill, Danish squash and butternut squash," marketing manager Lia Fletcher said by email.

"All of our store managers are instructed to print their price signs daily, and they need to pay close attention."

'A lot of slip'

Incorrect signs are commonplace across the province, says Tom Demma of the B.C. Vegetable Marketing Commission.

"It's a regrettable reality out there in the retail stores," Demma said. "There's a lot of slip between the cup and the lip."

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which is responsible for enforcing labelling rules in Canada, said in an email that it is "the responsibility of …retailers to ensure that their products are labelled and advertised in a manner that does not create a false and misleading impression."

"Consumers with concerns about food labelling practices at a particular retail outlet should first contact the store manager. If their concerns are not addressed or if they have knowledge about a fraudulent situation where fresh produce is intentionally being mislabelled, they are encouraged to contact the CFIA."

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Linda Delli Santi of the B.C. Greenhouse Growers Association is upset that retailers are unfairly cashing in on the demand for B.C.-grown produce, even if the sign errors are unintentional. (CBC)

Delli Santi said she believes complaints from shoppers have more clout than regulation by government.

"Whatever the consumer demands, the retailer listens," the B.C. Greenhouse Growers Association executive said. "If a customer walks because they are not getting what they want, that talks louder than a new rule or a new law."

Frank said he isn't willing to simply take retailers at their word when they promise changes.

"They have a little bit of a PR problem now don't they?" he said. "It will be interesting to see what happens two months from now, three months from now, six months from now.

"If people want B.C.-grown — and they don't have B.C.-grown stuff — the consumer is going to go elsewhere. It's all to do with the bottom line — no more no less."