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This tuna didn't pass the smell test, and it was a scandal in 1985

Health inspectors deemed up to a million cans of tuna from a New Brunswick plant unfit for store shelves in 1985. But the tuna made it to consumers anyway.

Product could 'turn your stomach' but it wasn't a health hazard, said inspectors

Tuna processed at the New Brunswick Star-Kist plant didn't pass the smell test. 2:53

The fish was "oozing" from the can and had a "strong smell," and chefs with the Canadian Forces didn't want to use it.

"Federal inspectors call the fish rotten and they refused to approve it for sale," said Peter Mansbridge, introducing a Sept. 17, 1985 report on The National about tuna canned by the Star-Kist plant in New Brunswick. 

But the inspectors' judgment was overruled by Fisheries Minister John Fraser, who deemed up to 1 million cans of the tuna to be fit for sale to consumers in April 1985.

The CBC-TV investigative series The Fifth Estate broke the story earlier that night, and CBC reporter Claude Adams brought viewers a condensed version on The National.

Trouble at the plant

The Star-Kist fish plant in St. Andrews-by-the-Sea, N.B., employed about 500 people. (The National/CBC Archives)

In the New Brunswick town of St. Andrews, the Star-Kist plant packed 40 per cent of the canned tuna in Canada and employed about 500 people.

But two years earlier, federal fish inspectors had started rejecting some of the plant's product. 

"They said it was rancid," said Adams. "Unfit for human consumption."

After that, despite Star-Kist's efforts to combat the ruling, some $500,000 in unapproved canned tuna had stacked up in warehouses.

"Desperate, the company threatened to close the plant," said Adams. "It said 400 jobs were at stake." 

Calling in the feds

Federal fisheries minister John Fraser said inspectors had perhaps been "too severe" and that he gave the benefit of the doubt to Star-Kist in deciding to release the tuna for sale. (The National/CBC Archives)

That's when New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield put the heat on the federal government, which regulated food inspection. 

Hatfield called Fraser who made the decision to overrule the inspectors and release the cans of tuna to stores.

"There could have been error here," Fraser told CBC. "Perhaps they were being too severe, and I gave that benefit of the doubt to the company."

The Canadian Armed Forces also received some of the tuna, and they didn't like it.

An unhappy customer

The Canadian Forces sent back two cases of the tuna, saying it "had a strong smell" and was "oozing out of the cans." (The National/CBC Archives)

"The military sent back two large shipments of the tuna," said Adams. "The cooks wouldn't touch it."

But Fraser, a Progressive Conservative MP from Vancouver South, was unmoved.

"If they don't like it, they don't have to buy any more of it," he said.

And so, the million cans went to stores where consumers would buy them, much to the consternation of the opposition parties.

"He's jeopardized the fish economy ... and he's jeopardized the health of Canadians," claimed Ray Skelly, the NDP fisheries critic. 

Adams clarified that the tuna had never been declared a health hazard, although "inspectors have said much of it is decomposed and can turn your stomach."

Fraser resigned his position as Minister of Fisheries and Oceans six days after the report aired.

The Star-Kist plant closed in the wake of the tuna scandal but reopened in the fall of 1987, according to the Globe and Mail. (The National/CBC Archives)