Fort McMurray Walmart customers react to charges of selling wildfire-contaminated food
‘If it is proven to be true, then definitely there should be some penalty against it’
Some Walmart customers are voicing their disappointment that the global retailer may have put lives at risk by allegedly selling food contaminated by the wildfire in Fort McMurray.
"If it is proven to be true, then definitely there should be some penalty against it," customer Vicki Kozmak said outside the store Friday.
"The consumers would definitely need to know."
- Walmart faces 174 charges related to sale of fire-contaminated food
- Fort McMurray wildfire will leave toxic legacy, experts say
Walmart Canada and four of its senior managers are facing 174 charges under the Alberta Public Health Act related to the sale of food contaminated during the wildfire, which engulfed the city last May.
A 31-page charge sheet lists the sale of various food items, ranging from chocolate bars to bacon and chicken.
The charges state Walmart Canada failed to ensure food — which had been contaminated or unfit for human consumption in the wake of the wildfire — not remain stocked or sold at its location in downtown Fort McMurray.
Four additional charges state Walmart lied to public health inspectors by saying it was not selling food that had been contaminated in the fire.
Before allowing residents to re-enter the city after the wildfire, health officials repeatedly advised residents and businesses to throw out any food products other than those stored safely in cans and tins.
Kozmak opted to dump anything that wasn't sealed.
"We had disposed of our perishables that had factory seals broken," Kozmak said, "And we were covered by insurance so that we could replace all of that."
Despite the allegations, Kozmak said she will still shop at Walmart, she just won't buy perishables.
The news also didn't stop Mary Lehoux from heading into the retailer on Friday.
The Lac La Biche resident said she would still shop at the retailer until the charges are proven or disproven.
"I would like to know the story behind it," Leheaux said, "And if it's true or not."
'Not willing to take the risk'
Fort McMurray Food Bank Executive Director Arianna Johnson did not comment on the allegations against Walmart, but said the food bank trashed much of its food when staff was allowed back into the city after the wildfire.
Alberta Health Services said the food bank could not hold on to anything that wasn't sealed or packaged in an air-tight can.
The food bank filled about 15 dumpsters with 57,000 items as it emptied its shelves after the wildfire.
Staff also had to thoroughly clean fridges and freezers filed with perishable items such as meat, after being without power for at least 10 days.
"As heartbreaking as it is, I am also not willing to take the risk to serve food that was in any way contaminated by the wildfire and could impact the health of our clients," Johnson said.
I am also not willing to take the risk to serve food that was in any way contaminated by the wildfire and could impact the health of our clients.- Arianna Johnson, Fort McMurray Food Bank
Walmart Canada declined an interview request. But in a written statement on Friday, Alex Robertson, the senior director of corporate affairs, expressed surprise at the charges.
"We, at all material times, and during an unprecedented crisis, worked very closely with both food inspectors and the crisis management team of the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo to re-open the store as soon as reasonably possible in an effort to support and meet the critical needs of the community,' Robertson said.
Alberta Health Services also declined comment because the matter is now before the courts.
However, AHS spokesman Kerry Williamson said in a statement that Walmart had reopened and sold wildfire-contaminated food to the public "despite having received this guidance and direction from AHS, both in person and in writing."
"This was a direct and avoidable risk to the health of this community," Williamson said.