Costco’s recall woes raise questions about corporate “organic” foods

It’s been nearly two weeks since Canadian Costco customers in Ontario, Quebec, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador learned the bag of Nature’s Touch Organic Berry Cherry Blend frozen fruit lying in their freezer might contain the hepatitis A virus (nothing like a hep A smoothie!). Now the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is warning Costco customers in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba and Saskatchewan that their Organic by Nature frozen organic sweet peas may be contaminated with listeria. According to Consumerist, a notice from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says the CRF Frozen Foods recall lists 15 types of frozen vegetables sold at Costco and Meijer stores in the United States and Canada.


The first of these two recalls is shocking since people who consumed the berries are now at risk of contracting hepatitis A, a potentially serious form of liver disease. Making matters worse, some of the berries may have been distributed in free food samples distributed at Costco.  I nearly bought that bag of berries but instead chose a cheaper bag of blueberries, supposedly from Canada.  I can understand why people thought the berry blend was safe. After all it’s labeled Canada Organic.  I was left with the impression it was an all-Canadian product.

Apparently this is not the case.  It seems some or perhaps all the berries in the blend came from a country or countries where either the water used to clean them contained sewage or the workers handling the berries weren’t washing their hands properly after using the bathroom since the virus is found only in the stools (feces) of infected people. Costco has phoned customers who purchased the Organic Berry Cherry Blend to offer them free vaccinations for hepatitis A since being vaccinated within two weeks can prevent the onset of symptoms. People were using the frozen berries in smoothies and since the berries weren’t cooked, they ingested the virus when they drank it.  The Government of Canada’s advisory notes:

Food contaminated with Hepatitis A virus may not look or smell spoiled. Consumption of food contaminated with this virus may cause hepatitis and produce a self-limited disease that does not result in chronic infection or chronic liver disease. The illness is usually mild and starts about 15 to 50 days after the contaminated food is eaten. It generally goes away by itself in a week or two, although it can last up to 6 months in some people. It can cause inflammation of the liver, and symptoms may include fever, low appetite, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, muscle aches, and yellowing in the whites of the eyes and the skin (jaundice).

In countries where hepatitis A is prevalent, people have antibodies to the disease but many Canadians lack antibodies. While most people who get exposed won’t get a chronic infection or chronic liver disease, the Mayo Clinic says in rare cases hepatitis A can cause a sudden loss of liver function, especially in older adults or people with chronic liver disease.

As for listeria, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada, it can lead to “a rare but serious disease called listeriosis.” The agency points out “food contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes may not look or smell spoiled but can still make you sick. Symptoms can include vomiting, nausea, persistent fever, muscle aches, severe headache and neck stiffness.”



Those at higher risk include pregnant women, the elderly and individuals with weakened immune systems and in serious cases, listeriosis can lead to brain infection and even death, the agency warns.

A Google search shows similar recalls for organic products sold at Costco’s Canadian stores. For example, in 2013 at least 1,200 Costco customers, mostly from British Columbia and Alberta, bought a frozen berry blend linked to a hepatitis A outbreak in eight U.S. states.

Even worse, some of these products sport labels that offer consumers an impression the product is sanctioned and safe. As you can see in the image of the Nature’s Touch Berry Cherry Blend above, the packaging includes a Canada Organic Logo and a label indicating the product was verified by the Non-GMO Project. The Organic by Nature frozen sweet peas are supposedly USDA organic.

What you can do

  1. Know who you’re buying from. If you’re going to shop at Costco or a big supermarket, research companies and find out where exactly the food is coming from. Phone the company whose name appears on the bag and ask about sourcing. Have them list their suppliers and tell you what countries grew your food. That way you’re aware of the risk.  Or if you’re going to gamble on a frozen berry mix, don’t use it for smoothies but turn it into jam so you kill any virus lurking in the bag.
  2. Don’t trust labels. It seems with these organic fruit blends the Canada Organic logo only refers to the Canadian component of the mix. The Non-GMO Project verified label suggests it’s non-GMO but this doesn’t guarantee the food’s safety. It’s sad that you have be skeptical about the labeling but based on these recent recalls the labels means nothing. Unless rules are tightened around food safety, an unlikely scenario in this time of global trade, you can’t be sure of anything in the global supply network.
  3. A better approach to buying organic is to buy locally from small, independent stores and if possible, directly from farmers in your area. Even better, grow food yourself. Buy in season and freeze your own berries and vegetables.

That way you won’t stand in line for a “free” vaccine at the pharmacy of your local Costco warehouse worried out of your mind about hep A because you enjoyed a yummy smoothie or feel nauseous with a stiff neck and muscle aches, a headache, fever, and vomiting just because you had a hankering for sweet peas.




Budgeting in the ‘burbs, the grocery edition

veggies at market

With food prices soaring, my partner and I looked for ways to save on groceries. Our bills were insane for a family of three. I believe we were averaging more than $500 per month and one month we spent $700 and we weren’t eating anything amazing as we accumulated PC points at Loblaws (Provigo Le Marché). When I lived alone with my son in Montreal our monthly grocery bills were often $250 but we were eating a mostly vegetarian diet, I had a tight budget and we lived closer to small fruit stores with low prices.

I learned about keeping a price book in Amy Dacyczyn’s Tightwad Gazette and when I searched online I was surprised to see a whole movement of people keeping price books to save money. One frugal blogger, Jordan Page of Fun, Cheap or Free , takes it to the next level. Besides recording your spending in a price book, she prescribes a food budget limit of $100 per person a month ($25 a week per person) and an envelope system to keep track of groceries, which under her rules you only buy once a week, no matter what. You’re allowed half of your total weekly budget for extras but you’re not supposed to go over the limit. We don’t follow her suggestions to the letter but we’re using them as a guideline. Jordan, who lives in Utah, uses an app to find the specials she wants and then heads to Walmart to price match her groceries, something that doesn’t interest us since we don’t shop there.

It looked like the key to meeting a weekly goal of $75 for food, plus $37.50 for everything else (toileteries etc), a total of $112.50 a week, would be to shop the specials.

In January we took our first tentative steps towards slashing our grocery bills and meeting this new goal. At first we scanned printed flyers and circled what we wanted. Then we made lists of the specials and stores. This was a nightmare. It took forever to flip through the flyers. We fought over what we were buying for the week and headed to too many stores.

Around the time I found the Salewhale app, CBC Montreal’s Shari Okeke did a story about Montrealers stretching their grocery dollars. One of the people she interviewed recommended an app called Flipp for grocery shopping.

If you shop at supermarkets and pharmacies these software apps make a difference. Instead of searching for items and prices in the paper store flyers it now takes seconds to see all the sales in your local area at a glance. Flipp shows you the flyers while in Salewhale the sale items are standalone. Both let you search for items and make lists and you can email the list so grocery shopping becomes easier. The downside is Salewhale’s app isn’t currently available for Android phones so we use it on our laptops or desktop. Since Flipp is available for Android we sometimes use it when we’re in a store and want to double-check prices.

You can’t count on the advertised specials to find deals. We’ve noticed that some supermarkets, for instance, Super C and IGA, are adjusting prices to match or beat specials advertised by competitors and they don’t advertise these specials, you only discover them at the store. We buy bread at Costco and for a time it was the only place around here selling two loaves of sandwich bread for $ 4.99 but now that IGA and other stores are selling two loaves of sandwich bread for $5.

Besides shopping the specials, we signed up for a bi-weekly basket of organic vegetables from Les Jardins de la Montagne, a Community Supported Agriculture Farm organic farm in Rougemont, Quebec. The $25 basket is meant for one person but we stretch it over two weeks, partly because we supplement with deals on canned tomatoes (sparingly used – we know about the BPA risk) and vegetables. It reduces the hassle of grocery shopping. And because you can change the contents of the basket and add or subtract items so long as you don’t go below $15, it’s a fun way of trying all kinds of organic food. This week our basket includes maple syrup from Erablière du Chevreuil, a private sugar shack in the Laurentians.

Is our experiment working? Yes and no. We’ve mostly met the $75 weekly goal though we dip into the $37.50 set aside each week for “extras” and we’re not tracking everything quite the way Jordan Page does. We could probably do better and I don’t consider us to be frugal superstars. But we’re meeting our budget goal and setting aside the savings for a family vacation or something fun. The price book helps track the going rate for different goods. We can tell if something is actually a deal or if the “special” is the same as the regular price or even above the regular price elsewhere. We could save more if everyone in the house ate the same food and liked the same things. My partner and I alternate making weekly grocery lists and meal planning and we don’t always want the same foods. IBS makes things complicated because there are foods I just can’t eat and my son and my partner love meat so we’re balancing the grocery list to give everyone a bit of what they like.

While we try to limit the number of stores visited each week, we often end up at three different stores, racking up air miles and loyalty points where they’re offered. Since I don’t drive and we’re in Vaudreuil, I’m counting on my partner to do the driving and he’s not crazy about going from store to store.

We’re not alone in taking a frugal approach to grocery shopping and it seems the big box grocery stores are taking notice. Last week IGA (Sobeys Québec)  announced it was chopping regular prices on 8,500 products by 5 to 7 percent. This “permanent price drop” affects mostly dry goods but doesn’t include fresh products or meats, leaving critics to suggest it’s just a marketing ploy.

I say bring on the grocery wars, we’re ready for them.