Media Allege Canadian Officials Allowed Sale of Rancid Tuna Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation television newsmagazine The Fifth Estate reported that large quantities of possibly rancid tuna had been distributed to Canadian consumers. The minister of fisheries and oceans, who approved of the distribution despite warnings, resigned. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s role in the scandal was questioned as well.

Summary of Event

On September 17, 1985, the television newsmagazine The Fifth Estate, broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), reported that large quantities of rancid tuna fish had been distributed to Canadian consumers. Despite being aware that inspectors had rejected the tuna as being unfit for human consumption, John Fraser, who was appointed as the federal minister of fisheries and oceans in 1984, overruled the decision and approved the distribution of the tuna. [kw]Media Allege Canadian Officials Allowed Sale of Rancid Tuna (Sept. 17, 1985) [kw]Rancid Tuna, Media Allege Canadian Officials Allowed Sale of (Sept. 17, 1985) Canadian Broadcasting Corporation "Tunagate"[Tunagate] Fifth Estate, The (magazine) Mulroney, Brian [p]Mulroney, Brian;and “Tunagate”[Tunagate] Fraser, John Canadian Broadcasting Corporation "Tunagate"[Tunagate] Fifth Estate, The (magazine) Mulroney, Brian [p]Mulroney, Brian;and “Tunagate”[Tunagate] Fraser, John [g]Canada;Sept. 17, 1985: Media Allege Canadian Officials Allowed Sale of Rancid Tuna[02180] [c]Corruption;Sept. 17, 1985: Media Allege Canadian Officials Allowed Sale of Rancid Tuna[02180] [c]Government;Sept. 17, 1985: Media Allege Canadian Officials Allowed Sale of Rancid Tuna[02180] [c]Medicine and health care;Sept. 17, 1985: Media Allege Canadian Officials Allowed Sale of Rancid Tuna[02180] [c]Business;Sept. 17, 1985: Media Allege Canadian Officials Allowed Sale of Rancid Tuna[02180] [c]Ethics;Sept. 17, 1985: Media Allege Canadian Officials Allowed Sale of Rancid Tuna[02180]

StarKist StarKist Canada Canada, Inc., acquired in 1981 by the American company H. J. Heinz, had the only tuna canning plant in Canada and controlled approximately 40 percent of the Canadian canned-tuna market. The allegedly tainted tuna was manufactured at StarKist’s plant in St. Andrews, New Brunswick.

Quality issues with the canned tuna manufactured at the St. Andrews plant began several years before the story broke in the media. Using sight, smell, and taste tests, Department of Fisheries and Oceans inspectors had declared that a total of approximately one million cans of tuna were not suitable for human consumption. The tuna, which was imported from other parts of the world, including Africa and Asia, and canned in Canada, was described as rancid and emitting a strong odor. It was later reported that a type of tuna frequently processed at the plant was of a smaller kind and that it had a greater fat content, which increased the likelihood of oxidation or rotting. Oxidation could have occurred during storage or through thawing of the fish.

The value of the amassed one million cans of rejected tuna was estimated to be between $600,000 and $800,000. As a result of the potential loss of revenue, StarKist was threatening to close the St. Andrews plant, one of the largest employers in the county. StarKist executives, along with the New Brunswick premier, Richard Hatfield, petitioned Fraser and sought his approval to distribute the tuna to consumers anyway. Fraser asked the New Brunswick Research and Productivity Council (RPC), an independent agency that traditionally used a more sophisticated chemical analysis of food than did the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, to examine the tuna. In contrast to the fisheries and oceans inspectors, the RPC found the tuna to be suitable for public consumption.

Conflicting reports exist as to whether Fraser waited for the results of the RPC tests prior to overruling the decision of the fisheries and oceans inspectors and approving the sale of the tuna. RPC representatives claimed that Fraser had approved the distribution of the tuna prior to the completion of testing. The tuna was distributed to supermarkets and other food stores throughout Canada and even purchased by the Department of National Defense. However, the food product was later returned because of its poor appearance and smell. The tuna also was rejected by an African famine-relief organization.

Fraser was interviewed for the broadcast of The Fifth Estate and was thus questioned by the Canadian House of Commons. He defended his decision to approve the otherwise rejected tuna. He claimed that the inspection techniques used by the fisheries and oceans department were subjective. He testified that he had consumed the tuna himself and had no problems for doing so. While some store owners had already voluntarily removed the tuna from store shelves, a formal recall was announced on September 19. In addition to the StarKist brand, the allegedly tainted tuna was sold under the different labels. Less than one week after the scandal was broadcast, Fraser resigned his position.

Fraser was not the only public official who faced increased scrutiny as a result of Tunagate, as the incident was dubbed by the press. While admitting that two staff members were aware of the situation involving the supposedly tainted tuna in July, 1985, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney claimed that he did not learn of the incident until the day the story broke on The Fifth Estate. Initially, Fraser and another public official testified that Mulroney had been aware of the release of the tuna prior to the news report. However, several days later, both recanted their stories and corroborated Mulroney’s account. Mulroney defended his actions, claimed he acted appropriately, and then took credit for issuing the recall. He offered to resign as prime minister if it was proven that he was aware of the distribution before the CBC report.

StarKist never recovered from the scandal. The St. Andrews plant closed in October, leaving its four hundred workers unemployed. StarKist’s share of the Canadian canned-tuna market was reduced from nearly 40 percent to zero. In 1987, the St. Andrews plant resumed packaging tuna. Two years later, StarKist tuna was reintroduced to Canadian grocery stores. Despite its marketing and advertising efforts, sales of the fish lagged. In 1990, StarKist ceased its operations in Canada.

In the recall, more than twenty million cans of tuna, valued at an estimated $17 million, were confiscated. Although cans of the tuna were later tested and deemed fit for human consumption, the government mandated that the entire lot was not suitable for humans but could be sold in Canada and abroad as Pet food pet food.

In 1992, the tainted tuna resurfaced when it was reportedly repackaged as tuna suitable for human consumption and sold in thirteen states in the United States. The tuna could be traced to the St. Andrews plant by a code printed on the can. A recall was subsequently issued in the United States. Not only was the tuna intended to be sold in the United States, but a plan to relabel the cat food as tuna suitable for humans and import it back into Canada from the United States was uncovered when the cans were inspected at the U.S.-Canadian border.


Tunagate was covered heavily by a press that critics contended was biased against the Conservative government. The scandal, despite its widespread press attention, led to nothing but fear. No official reports surfaced of persons becoming ill from eating the fish, and no one died from consuming the questionable tuna. Later reports indicated that although the tuna smelled and looked inedible, it was consumable and had posed no health threats to those who did chose to eat the product. Furthermore, the cans that held the tuna had been sterilized at the plant during manufacturing, thus reducing any threat of food-related illness. Nonetheless, the incident incited widespread fear. It also became a popular source of jokes, even spawning a card game called “Tunagate,” in which the cards were packaged in a round tin container.

The scandal weakened the public’s faith in the government agencies that approved food for human consumption. Food inspection in Canada was later centralized under the administration of one agency. This centralization limited the conflicting goals of departments in promoting and regulating industries and products.

After resigning from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Fraser restarted his career and was elected speaker of the Commons in 1986 and reelected in 1988. Mulroney, despite questions raised about his knowledge of Tunagate, was reelected prime minister in 1988 and served until 1993. Canadian Broadcasting Corporation "Tunagate"[Tunagate] Fifth Estate, The (magazine) Mulroney, Brian [p]Mulroney, Brian;and “Tunagate”[Tunagate] Fraser, John

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Harris, Michael. “PM Is Caught by New Snag in Tuna Affair.” Globe & Mail, September 25, 1985. Reviews public statements that contradict Mulroney’s statements about his knowledge of the distribution of the rejected tuna to Canadian consumers.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Savoie, Donald J. Breaking the Bargain: Public Servants, Ministers, and Parliament. Toronto, Ont.: University of Toronto Press, 2003. Argues that “Canada’s machinery of government is out of joint.” Discusses the challenges facing the tradition of deal-making between elected officials and career officials. A good introduction to the workings (and problems) of the Canadian system of government.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Tuna Casualties Mostly Political.” Financial Post (Toronto), September 28, 1985. Provides a thorough summary of the scandal, including details of the resignation of John Fraser.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">“Two Hundred Fifty Workers to Lose Jobs as N.B. Tuna Plant Closes.” Globe & Mail, May 18, 1990. Reports on the closing of the StarKist Canada tuna canning plant in St. Andrews, New Brunswick.

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Categories: History