When Jennifer Degroot bought a case of 40 juice boxes on May 31, she had no idea she was buying anything other than a convenient drink for her two children, Johnny, 8, and Jessica, 5.
A few days later, her daughter brought her one of the juice boxes, saying it "smelled stinky."
"She handed it to me and I noticed the smell right away, and I took it into the kitchen and looked at it," Degroot says. "And then I saw the maggots crawling on the bottom and it was bloated and it looked like it was going to explode."
Since the discovery of that first leaking juice box in June, Jennifer and her father, Bill Mason, have reported finding leaking juice boxes packaged under the Dole brand on separate occasions in July, August and October. The family, which lives in Waterford, Ont., believes the packaging is faulty, and has been urging the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) to issue a warning.
"On the first day the CFIA came down, I asked them for a recall," Degroot says. "They said they had to do their investigation, and if it warrants it, they'd issue a recall. All I can do is I've told as many people as I can with kids about the juice boxes, and my friends are trying to spread the word, but we can only do so much."
The CFIA's initial investigation concluded the leaking boxes found by Degroot in June were an isolated incident. Based on the additional leaking boxes found since then, it opened another investigation in mid-October, but has not issued any conclusions to the public.
'It [a leaking juice box] definitely is worrisome, because the product inside is then leaking onto the outside of the package and could become contaminated, whether it's in the factory, somewhere in the shipping, or on the shelves at the store.' — Neil Buchmann, Noraxx Inspections
Chris Hansen, the national co-ordinator for food safety and consumer protection at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, confirmed in an interview with CBC News that a second investigation is underway.
The 200 millilitre boxes of juice being investigated are designed to have a shelf life, without refrigeration, of more than 90 days. Hansen says these boxes are hermetically sealed, which is supposed to make them secure from micro-organisms. However, when asked for specifics about the progress of the investigation into reports of leaking containers, Hansen has few answers.
"Well, I am not familiar with the [juice packaging] facility," Hansen says. "I am not familiar with the complaints or with the situation as it is. But we do investigate the situation and we will continue to investigate the situation, and whether it is a pattern or not I can't tell you because I am not familiar with all specifics."
CBC News spoke to several microbiologists to find out whether there are risks if the seal on these juice boxes is damaged.
Neil Buchmann and Al Brewer, food safety auditors with Noraxx Inspections, say the juice could be a breeding ground for bacteria if a hole allows air in. Leaking juice on the outside of a box could also attract bacteria and other organisms.
"It definitely is worrisome, because the product inside is then leaking onto the outside of the package and could become contaminated, whether it's in the factory, somewhere in the shipping, or on the shelves at the store," Buchmann says. "And then children, who are the main consumers of this product, would be touching the package with their hands, drinking the product, and their hands could be in their mouth or contaminating other food that they eat, so that could be a problem."
Brewer adds that a container designed to keep juice sterile and free from spoilage shouldn't deteriorate within that product's recommended shelf life of more than 90 days. "If they're given 90 days [shelf life], then you would hope that the majority of these cases would survive 90 days in the distribution environment."
The juice boxes in the case purchased in late May by Degroot were leaking six weeks after they were packaged. CFIA tests on one of the samples confirmed it was leaking, but the food agency dismissed the result as insignificant because the juice box had been frozen. Some juice makers warn against freezing juice cartons because it may damage the seal.
"When we had called the CFIA, they said to us send them to us frozen, to the lab. So the lab technician thought that the brown [marks on the box] and the leaking had been caused by freezing," Mason says.
Read the letter Bill Mason received from the CFIA regarding the results of leak- and bacteria-analysis performed on drinking boxes he submitted for testing. (Sept. 12, 2008)
Read the letter Bill Mason received from the CFIA regarding the results of initial tests performed on drinking boxes he submitted for testing. (June 26, 2008)
The CFIA decided it was an isolated incident and closed the case.
Unconvinced, Mason set up a juice box observatory of sorts on his kitchen table. He also filed an access to information request to get the CFIA's full report on the original juice containers.
"After the first batch was picked up, I had brought the balance of the case home, of that 40 pack of [juice]," Mason says. "I put them on my kitchen table because I wasn't satisfied with the e-mail I got saying it was an isolated case."
On July 17, he noticed that another juice box from the original case was bloated and leaking. He notified the CFIA, but inspectors decided not to pick up the box and advised Mason to wait until he received the final report he had requested through access to information.
Then more boxes started to leak
In early August, Mason notified the CFIA that four more juice boxes had bloated, leaking from the bottom. He asked a CFIA agent to come and pick them up.
"She was very reluctant — 'The case is closed, Bill. The case is closed.' And I said, 'But … these are from the same lot. You took pictures of these ones. These have never been frozen like your technician said, and I said they are leaking. They are massive. They slowly leaked over a period of that month. I isolated them, which I have photographs of.' And reluctantly, after about the second or third telephone call, she said 'Okay, we'll come down, but the case is closed. We're doing this as a favour.' "
'Occasionally we do get these type of complaints. We try our best to minimize these things, but you know, when the product leaves our warehouse it is very difficult for us to control what is happening to it.' — Hany Farag, Dole
A few days after the CFIA picked up the leaky juice boxes, Mason says he noticed more leaks from the remaining containers on his kitchen table.
Then in September, a letter notified the family that the boxes picked up in August had been tested and all four of the samples failed a leak test. Aerobic gram positive rods, lactobacillus and yeast were also detected in a microbiology test done by the CFIA.
Speaking from California, Dole's vice-president of quality and regulatory affairs, Dr. Hany Farag, told the CBC that he was aware that complaints had been made about the cartons, but said the leaks could be due unknown factors in transporting the product to the shelf.
"I am aware that some other units were found," Farag says. "Occasionally we do get these type of complaints. We try our best to minimize these things, but you know, when the product leaves our warehouse it is very difficult for us to control what is happening to it. If it gets mishandled anywhere after it leaves our warehouse, we cannot control that. We make sure when it leaves our warehouse there are no quality issues whatsoever. This is a brand name issue that we take pride in, and we make sure that nothing defective leaves our warehouse."
Internal documents obtained by CBC News reveal that the initial CFIA inspection of the juice boxes after
Rick Holley, a microbiologist who teaches at the University of Manitoba and a member of the newly convened CFIA external advisory panel, says the inspection didn't appear to be thorough enough.
"What is missing from the documentation is any indication that anybody ever went to the Dole warehouse where this product was apparently stored for a period of time," Holley said after reviewing the investigation documents for the CBC.
A pattern emerges?
There have been a string of complaints about leaking juice boxes following our investigation. Several people contacted CBC News after we broadcast and published the leaking juice boxes story.
Among the complaints:
Karen Cameron of St. Catharines, Ont., bought a case of Dole juice boxes in September at the local Costco. She didn't notice anything strange about the case until she turned it over to load into to her car. The bottom was drenched in juice.
"I just thought I got a damaged one. But it wasn't just two or three [boxes]. It was the entire case. The whole packaging was soggy."
Scott Redmond of Woodbridge, Ont., says he picked up a case of Dole juice boxes at a nearby Costco outlet in August 2007. After his family had gone through about a quarter of the case, Redmond smelled a "very pungent, distinct odour." Numerous boxes were bloated and leaking.
When he heard Degroot's story, a light went off in his head.
"Thinking back to our situation, we were debating whether or not to drink the remaining packages. But we threw them out, and I am glad we did."
Redmond received a full refund ($16 US) for the case from Dole. The Dole representative advised him to throw out the rest of the juice boxes.
A second CFIA investigation into 200ml Dole juice boxes is currently underway.
Internal CFIA e-mail traffic obtained in relation to the case under access to information laws reveals that inspectors don't have any clear guidelines on what actions should be taken during an investigation, such as testing a product. In one e-mail exchange an inspector tells another that the decision to test products is at their discretion: "I spoke to our PFV Program Officer who indicated that there is no clear program directives. [T]he final decision would be on the inspectors."
After thoroughly reading the report obtained under access to information laws, Mason says he has little confidence in the CFIA and that the investigation didn't go far enough to figure out what went wrong. "[The inspector} didn't go to the Dole warehouse, he didn't visit them there. He didn't go to the actual people who make the containers to find out how they are made."
Meanwhile, Mason continues his monitoring of drinking boxes, and on Oct. 17 he purchased two more cases of Dole 200 millilitre juice cartons. The two cases had different lot codes and both contained boxes that were leaking, he says.
Once again, Mason called the CFIA, and two inspectors have since made a third visit to his home. During the latest visit, they assured him they would be starting a separate investigation into the juice box packaging itself.
Mason hopes the CFIA has the all evidence it needs to determine if there are problems with the boxes.
"I hope they stop this game of Russian roulette and they'll send out an advisory to the consumer, advising them about the dangers, about the leakage of the packaging," Mason says. "The best I can hope for is that they have Dole either do a voluntary recall or change the packaging, period."