Walmart, manager fined $40,000 for selling contaminated food after Fort McMurray wildfire

Walmart Canada pleaded guilty to 10 charges of selling wildfire-contaminated food after the May 2016 Fort McMurray forest fire.

Retailer agrees to donate $130,000 to the Red Cross after pleading guilty

Walmart Canada and its district loss prevention manager have pleaded guilty to failing to ensure food contaminated in the May 2016 wildfire was not stocked or sold at its outlet in downtown Fort McMurray. (Canadian Press)

Walmart Canada and its district loss prevention manager were fined $20,000 each after pleading guilty Monday to 10 charges of selling contaminated food following the May 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire. 

The retailer has also agreed to donate $130,000 to the Red Cross.

The retail giant and Darren Kenyon pleaded guilty in Fort McMurray provincial court.

"Unfortunately, during the confusion of the unprecedented 2016 wildfire crisis in Alberta, we didn't adequately carry out an order from Alberta Health to dispose of certain food items in the Fort Mac store prior to reopening," Walmart said Monday in a statement attributed to Rob Nicol, the company's vice-president of corporate affairs.

"For this, we sincerely apologize to our customers and Alberta Health. Food safety and the safety of our customers is our top priority. We have learned from this experience and will be better able to respond in future crises to support the community. As part of our commitment, Walmart has recently made a donation to the Red Cross to support ongoing disaster preparedness, relief and recovery operations."

Walmart and Kenyon admitted to displaying, storing and selling food that was not fit for human consumption after the wildfire.

The food included pickles, beef jerky, spices, pretzels, mints, stuffing mixes, vinegar, salad dressings, corn starch and yeast.

In accepting the guilty plea, Judge Charles Gardner told court he hoped it would deter future offenders and protect vulnerable populations such as people recovering from large-scale disasters.

"[The wildfire] was a particularly trying time for this community," Gardner said. "It was a very difficult situation for the people of Fort McMurray."

Walmart misled inspectors

Originally, Walmart and four of its managers faced 174 charges under the Public Health Act. It was alleged that Walmart sold wildfire-tainted food including chocolate bars, pasta, breakfast cereal, bacon and cheese. 

The remaining 164 charges — including counts that Walmart and managers shared false information with public health inspectors — were withdrawn. All charges against three other accused senior managers were dropped.

But according to an agreed statement of facts, Walmart admitted to providing false information to inspectors.

On May 27, 2016, health officers inspected the store and advised Kenyon that any food not in cans could not be sold.

During a follow-up inspection the next day, Kenyon told health officials that all non-canned foods that were in the store at the time of the wildfire had been dumped.

The store was then allowed to reopen.

A look inside Fort McMurray's Walmart on June 8, 2016, days after residents returned following the wildfire. (Radio-Canada)

On the day it reopened, Alberta Health Services received two complaints from the public about Walmart selling non-canned food that had been in the store during the fire.

An employee at the store also confirmed to an inspector the retailer was selling food left over from the wildfire.

When the complaints were brought to Walmart's attention, Kenyon denied them, according to the agreed statement of facts.

However, when a health inspector told Kenyon that one of his employees had said not all food to be thrown out had been tossed, Kenyon changed his answer.

"Kenyon confirmed that some of the food product in the Walmart store had not actually been disposed," it says in the agreed statement of facts.

'It's all about the bottom line'

Outside the Walmart on Monday, customers said they were disappointed to hear the company would sell products that were potentially unsafe.

"It's a concern to me," Sarah Gladue said. "I personally wouldn't want to have eaten any of that food."

But one person wasn't surprised the retailer would break food safety rules.

"They're a company. They make money," Chris Hartigan said. "[For] Walmart and any other corporation it's all about the bottom line."

More than 90,000 people in Fort McMurray and surrounding communities were forced from their homes for nearly a month after the wildfire, which destroyed about 2,400 homes and buildings and left layers of toxic smoke residue behind.

Before allowing residents to re-enter the city, health officials repeatedly advised residents and businesses, including Walmart, to throw out any food that wasn't stored safely in cans.

Connect with David Thurton, CBC's Fort McMurray correspondent, on FacebookTwitterLinkedIn or email him at david.thurton@cbc.ca 

About the Author

David Thurton

David Thurton is CBC's mobile journalist in Fort McMurray. He's worked for CBC in the Maritimes & in Canada's Arctic. Email: david.thurton@cbc.ca