British Columbia·Exclusive

Major grocers sell canned fish years past shelf life

A woman who bought lobster pâté recently at a Wal-Mart and felt ill after eating it tells CBC News's Go Public unit she was shocked to find the can should have been pulled from circulation a year and a half ago.

Wal-Mart admits mistake after woman complains; Safeway orders audit

Major stores sell food past shelf life

10 years ago
Duration 2:29
Wal-Mart has apologized after selling a woman lobster pâté a year past its best-by date

A woman who bought lobster pâté at a Wal-Mart recently and felt ill after eating it said she was shocked to find the can should have been pulled from circulation more than a year ago.

"It was scary. Very frightening," said Margaret Radomski, 78, of Leduc, Alta. "So, then I thought, how did this get on the shelf? There is something wrong here."

Radomski said the Clover Leaf pâté smelled and tasted too fishy. A few hours after eating it, she said she felt odd.

"I started to see stars in my eyes … a crawling sensation on my face," she said. "I got weak in my legs."

Radomski is convinced it was the pâté that made her feel sick, because she said she is normally healthy and has no allergies.

She checked the bottom of the can and found it had a "best before" date of July 2011 — a year and a half before she bought it.

Long past shelf life

This can of pâté recently purchased by Radomski should have been pulled from the shelf in July 2011. (CBC)

"I would have never bought this can of lobster pâté if I had seen the date on it … because I’m usually pretty careful about that," said Radomski.

"I feel insecure now. When I go to the store, I’ve got to study more of what I am buying."

Radomski said she refused Wal-Mart’s offer of $50 compensation and decided instead to go public to warn others.

Wal-Mart spokeswoman Felicia Fefer said the company's policy is not to sell any products past their best before date..

"We take this issue very seriously," she said. "We regret this incident, and remain committed to ensuring outdated products are removed from our shelves."

Not an isolated case

Walmart said it regrets what happened and its policy is to not sell any products past their best before date. (CBC)

Go Public visited 17 major grocery stores in the Vancouver area and found one-third had outdated cans of fish and seafood on their shelves.

Old cans of tuna and shrimp, stamped "best before" 2010 to 2012, were found mixed in with new ones, which were stamped with best before dates as late as 2015.

"When Clover Leaf is notified that product is on a store shelf that is past its best before date we will send an employee to that store to co-ordinate that product’s removal," said Peter Clarke, the company's marketing director.

Manufacturers say canned tuna and seafood has an approximate shelf life of three years after packing, before the best before date kicks in. 

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After that, manufacturers say the taste, texture and nutritional value deteriorates. Unless the can is damaged, Clarke said it is still safe to eat, indefinitely.

"This has nothing to do with product safety in any way. We do this because consumers do not wish to purchase product that has passed its best before date … best before does not imply bad after."

The store where Go Public found the most outdated products was Safeway. Three locations were selling canned tuna and shrimp between one and three years out of date.

Stores respond

"We are very disappointed with your findings and are taking this issue very seriously," said Safeway public affairs manager Betty Kellsey.

Go Public found outdated cans of fish and seafood in five Vancouver area grocery chain stores.

One Safeway in Coquitlam, B.C., had canned shrimp from Indonesia, with a shelf life that ended in August 2010.

"Our stores conduct rotating weekly date checks," wrote Kellsey. "Products that are nearing the best before dates are pulled from the shelf and discarded.

"Your investigation has identified opportunities for improvement."

Go Public also found outdated cans at one Thrifty’s and one Price Smart, which are owned by major grocery chains. Both said outdated food is not supposed to be sold.

"It is pulled and sent back to the vendor or recycled or discarded," said Thrifty’s communications manager Erin Kelly. "If a consumer finds it, they can bring it back for a full refund."

A statement from Overwaitea, which owns Price Smart, said: "The last date of sale for a best before date of tomorrow is end of day today. Tomorrow morning we remove all products with that date."

No rules on outdated goods

Cans of imported shrimp dated best before August 2010 were found on a Safeway store shelf in Coquitlam, B.C. (CBC)

In Canada, there are no government rules against selling outdated canned goods. Most manufacturers stamp best before dates on cans voluntarily, however, some dates are embedded in a code that consumers can’t decipher.

Food safety experts say there is no proof eating canned fish or seafood after the best before date has passed will make anyone sick. However, they say there are no independent studies proving it won’t.

"There is not enough data, so it’s hard to judge," said University of B.C. professor of food engineering Siyun Wang. "It certainly is not good to have food past the best by date in terms of the quality."

"There can be BPA [Bisphenol A] in containers, particularly from imported canned fish," said Xiaonan Lu, another UBC expert. Canada has declared BPA a toxic substance.

Consumer group urges diligence

After being contacted by Go Public, the Consumers’ Association of Canada also checked seven major stores in various cities and found outdated canned fish in every one.

"One of the stores in particular had stuff five years out of date, so how long had that been in the can?" said president Bruce Cran.

Safeway has initiated a Canada-wide audit of all canned fish, seafood and meat on store shelves, as a result of Go Public's findings. (CBC)

Because grocers have to absorb the cost of pulling old product and getting rid of it, he said there is little financial incentive for stores to be more diligent.

"If they are doing a weekly check, then how come some of this stuff is years out of date?" said Cran. "Some of what the stores are telling us doesn’t make any sense.

"The big message for consumers here is to check the dates on the back of the can. That’s what the dates are there for, even if we can’t figure out why."

As a result of Go Public inquiries, Safeway is undertaking a national audit.

"We are very concerned about this situation. As a result, we have immediately initiated an audit of the best before dates of all of our canned meat and fish inventory across our Canadian operations." 

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Kathy Tomlinson

Host & Reporter

Kathy Tomlinson worked as an investigative reporter at CBC for more than a decade.