CANADA

A FISHY CAN OF WORMS

PAUL GESSELL September 30 1985
CANADA

A FISHY CAN OF WORMS

PAUL GESSELL September 30 1985

A FISHY CAN OF WORMS

CANADA

On a summer evening in 1982 Abner Dewar noticed an unpleasant aroma arising from the tuna casserole that his wife was cooking. Dewar, the chief of the Halifax-based Inspection Laboratory of the federal department of fisheries and oceans, later complained to officials in his department about the problem. That contributed to a three-year battle with the processor of the tuna, Star-Kist Canada Inc. of St. Andrews, N.B. Then, last week the issue took on an explosive political dimension. The reason: federal Fisheries Minister John Fraser, at the urging of New Brunswick Premier Richard Hatfield, had allowed StarKist to market more than a million cans of tuna that government health officials had rejected as “unfit for human consumption.” Liberal Leader John Turner subsequently denounced Fraser for “knuckling under to a provincial premier,” and New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent declared that the fisheries minister was “gambling with the health of Canadians.”

As the controversy over the tainted tuna raged, Mulroney moved quickly to distance himself as far as possible from his floundering fisheries minister.

Asked by reporters whether the tuna should have been prevented from going on sale, Mulroney—apparently undercutting his minister—replied tersely, “That’s pretty damned obvious.” At one point, the Prime Minister and Fraser even contradicted each other publicly over how the issue was handled. Mulroney claimed that “As soon as I found out about it,

I dealt with it immediately.”

But a visibly shaken Fraser insisted a few hours later that the tuna concern was reported to Mulroney’s office “at least some weeks ago,” and he noted that it was he and Health Minister Jake Epp, not Mulroney, who decided finally to order the tuna off the market.

By week’s end, it was clear that the scandal had not been erased by Fraser’s announcement to the House on Thurs-

day that the disputed tuna lots would be immediately seized. With the opposition clamoring for Fraser’s resignation and with the Prime Minister obviously disenchanted with his minister’s performance, the crisis was expected to deepen as more information surfaced. On Friday NDP fisheries critic Raymond Skelly

produced a Telex from the Research & Productivity Council (RPC) of New Brunswick to Fraser’s department which seemed to dispute Fraser’s claim

that he decided to release the questionable tuna—which federal inspectors had already declared unfit—only after the RPC determined the fish was fit for human consumption.

The date on the Telex containing the

RPC evaluation showed that it arrived in the minister’s office four days after Fraser had already released the tuna into the marketplace. But Maclean ’s has also learned that RPC actually recommended the rejection of two of the lots—Bye the Sea Lot No. 629VFBS159 and StarKist Lot No. 949VCBS233—that Fraser

had already released to the supermarket shelves.

As more details emerged, questions also arose over Fraser’s political future.

Insiders were divided over whether he might resign on his own or be forced out by Mulroney. Still, despite the apparent breach of cabinet solidarity, the minister may yet stay in office. Said a source within Fraser’s own department: “Nobody ever seems to resign anymore. You can trace it back to the last years of the Trudeau government. If you can stand the heat for long enough, it eventually goes away.”

Besides the possible health

risks involved in the sale of the tuna, the issue raised concerns in some circles about the role played by Hatfield in influencing Fraser. Confidential memos, Telex messages and other documents showed that Hatfield, who was

concerned over the possible loss of 400 jobs if the Star-Kist plant had to shut down, convinced Fraser to allow suspect tuna to be retested and released onto the market. Although a fisheries department memo dated April 10 noted that “the minister and Premier Hatfield have met and discussed the issue,” Fraser told a CBC interviewer, “I don’t remember meeting Hatfield.”

The fact that Fraser had overruled fishery inspectors was initially reported on the national Newsradio network by Ottawa correspondent Fred Ennis in mid-July. But other media did not follow up on the disclosure at the time. Then, last week Eric Mailing aired the story in

detail on CBC television’s the fifth estate. Confronted in the House, Fraser at first tried to defend the distribution of the tuna on the grounds that it did not pose a health hazard. Later, as opposition fury—and consumer concern over possible health risks—mounted, Fraser announced that Ottawa would order the recall of the 1,128,000 tins of suspect fish. But by then more than half the tuna —sent to retail outlets last spring—had probably been sold.

Star-Kist markets canned tuna under various brand names, including Bye the Sea and Captain’s Pantry, and it supplies tuna sold by a dozen other firms. In fact, the St. Andrews factory packs about 40 per cent of the canned tuna sold in Canada. Although there were no re-

ports of serious illness resulting from consumption of the tuna, some Canadians who ate the tuna reported being sick. Richard McColl of Killaloe, Ont., for one, said that after eating some of the tuna he vomited for hours.

The issue added to the problems already faced by Canada’s troubled East Coast fisheries industry (page 50). It even posed a threat to salmon packers in Fraser’s home province of British Columbia. Michael Hunter, president of the Fisheries Council of British Columbia, said he is concerned that consumers might grow suspicious of all canned fish. “The fallout from this kind of thing can be devastating,” said Hunter. “It’s not

fair for our industry to be linked in any way.”

Over the past three years Star-Kist Canada Inc., a subsidiary of the American food conglomerate H.J. Heinz Co. of Pittsburgh, had encountered growing problems with federal inspectors. The St. Andrews plant packs tuna imported from various parts of the world, but federal officials regularly objected to the smell, taste and texture of some of the company’s tuna. At times, as much as 80 per cent of the plant’s tinned tuna was rejected by inspectors. In a letter dated Nov. 23, 1984, company president Albert Cropley complained to a federal fisheries department official that “since Nov. 15, 1984, four out of five samples inspected by your staff have been reject-

ed for rancidity and decomposition.”

Other documents showed that StarKist executives, in correspondence with federal officials throughout 1984, contended that the inspectors were poorly trained, overzealous individuals who were trying to apply unrealistic regulations. The company’s technical director, M.L.B. Williams, in a Nov. 26, 1984, letter to Bernard Lingeman, chief of the fisheries department’s quality control division, noted that company officials believed that some inspectors “not only do not like tuna but may not like fish, period.”

According to the documents, StarKist at times tried to portray its difficulties as being caused, at least partly, by Dewar’s unhappiness with his tuna casserole. Dewar outlined his concerns about the wholesomeness of some StarKist tuna in a Nov. 27, 1984, letter to Cropley. In that correspondence he said that questionable tuna produced by the company “poses no hazard whatsoever to health.” But he added that the fish “could cause upset or illness to certain individuals who consumed the food whose systems have a low tolerance to rancidity and/or different stages of decomposition.”

The issue came to a head this spring, when Star-Kist’s parent company began considering closing down its St. Andrews operations, partly because of the plant’s problems with federal officials. Then Hatfield, who has faced several political difficulties in the past year —dissatisfaction over his leadership has been growing among New Brunswick Conservatives since he was acquitted on charges of marijuana possession last January—protested the federal fisheries department’s treatment of Star-Kist as “unnecessary harassment.” In a March 26 Telex message Hatfield told Fraser that H.J. Heinz had decided to close the St. Andrews plant, but this decision could be reversed if federal officials would make “a change in inspection procedures” and accept a ruling on the tuna by a provincial agency.

According to the fisheries department interoffice memo dated April 10: “The minister and Premier Hatfield have met and discussed the issue raised in the Telex. Action has been taken respecting the concerns raised by the premier and, therefore, a response to the Telex is not necessary.” It was not clear whether Fraser at that point had agreed to Hatfield’s demands. But on April 14, W.H. Dryden, administrator of the New Brunswick government’s job protection unit, sent a Telex to Arthur May, Ottawa’s deputy fisheries minister. In it he noted, “If we can solve this problem quickly, the company will hire another 100 people to take care of new orders for the U.S. markets.” In the

meantime, other documents show that Fred McCain, the Conservative MP for the New Brunswick riding of CarletonCharlotte, where the Star-Kist plant is located, and Jeanne Geldart, president of the Atlantic Provinces Chamber of Commerce, also expressed concern about the plant’s future to Fraser.

The minister finally agreed to have the tuna that federal officials had rejected examined by an outside body. Samples of the tuna were tested by both the New Brunswick Research & Productivity Council in Fredericton and a panel of experts assembled by Fraser from other provinces. In both cases, Fraser now says, the tuna was proved to be safe for human consumption. Fraser even taste-tested three tuna samples himself in St. Andrews in November, and he told reporters, “I preferred two; I didn’t prefer the other one.”

On April 29 Fraser allowed the sale of more than a million tins of tuna that had been previously rejected by his department. The Canadian Forces bought $100,000 worth of the tuna, but messhall cooks found the fish offensive and refused to serve it. The company also tried to send some of the suspect tuna to famine-stricken Ethiopia, but documents obtained by Maclean's showed that Canadian officials prevented the shipment. David MacDonald, Canada’s famine relief co-ordinator, told StarKist, “It is wrong to offer to others food that we have condemned as unfit for human consumption.”

By the time Ottawa recalled the tuna last week, a good deal of it had already been sold. Robert Goodwin, Star-Kist’s Toronto-based sales manager, estimated about half the tins had likely been purchased. “I talked to one guy who said he bought a whole case of the stuff and now he wants a refund,” said Goodwin. “He has already eaten three-quarters of the case and he has no complaints, but he said he didn’t want to take a chance.”

In the Commons the NDP’s James Fulton declared that after his performance with the suspect tuna, Fraser himself should be “canned as unfit for Canadian consumption.” For his part, Fraser pledged to revise and improve federal fish-testing procedures, and he defended his decision to allow the tins to be sold by contending that the questionable tuna did not involve a “question of health. What there is is a question of esthetics.” Clearly, there was also a more fundamental question of ministerial judgment involved. And that is an issue Mulroney may weigh carefully as he considers the future of his suddenly accident-prone government.

JANE O’HARA

LINDA CAHILL

—PAUL GESSELL in Ottawa with JANE O’HARA in Vancouver and LINDA CAHILL in Toronto