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Costco Canada’s fish stocks will stay bountiful under government import suspension

Costco Canada (COST.O) ran afoul of the nation’s food watchdog when it imported a small quantity of Italian canned tuna without allowing for the proper inspections, a mistake that cost the warehouse-style retailer its license to import fish on Monday.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) says Costco Canada violated sections of the Fish Inspection Regulations pertaining to pickled, spiced, and marinated fish.

“The CFIA has determined that adequate controls for food safety are not being reliably implemented by the company on a consistent basis, which is in violation of the Fish Inspection Regulations,” said the agency on its website.

"Costco Canada is still permitted to sell fish products, as long as they are purchased from another federally regulated Canadian fish import company. However, they are not permitted to import fish products into Canada while their import licence is suspended," said Tammy Jarbeau, a media relations official with CFIA via email.

No product recalls have been announced in connection with the suspension. Costco officials say consumers were not at risk of buying spoiled fish at any time.

“There was no food safety issue in this matter,” said Pietro Nenci, Costco’s vice president of corporate foods in Canada.

Costco directly imported the fish in question - Zarotti tuna fillets in olive oil - in small quantity from Italy, and sold them as a product test at handful of East Coast locations.

Nenci says 99.5 percent of the fish products in Costco stores are imported by venders who handle the CFIA inspections. Therefore, the vast majority of fish products will still be available to Costco shoppers. Nenci says Costco doesn’t use its fish import license very often, and that could have led the company to missing regulatory requirements.

"Costco Canada did not fulfill its obligation to notify the CFIA prior to the importation of the products in question within 48 hours of the receipt of imported products, as required under paragraph 6(2)(e) of the Fish Inspection Regulations," said Jarbeau.

“It was a test, maybe that’s why it went through the cracks. It was a small item that we tried and tested,” said Nenci.

Costco has imported Zarotti products three times over the past two years. The company says an administrative breach led one batch to skip CFIA inspection. On another occasion, Costco worked with CFIA officials but failed to satisfy their requirements.

“We realized that, oh my god, it’s not only one time, it’s a couple of times that this product has come into Canada. We thought we were doing the right thing. We were going through the process, and then realized after meeting with CFIA that we actually did not respect the process in the way were supposed to for various reasons,” said Nenci.

Costco currently has no plans to directly import more fish, and will continue rely on its vendor network for inventory at its 89 warehouse stores across Canada while it looks to overhaul administrative processes.

The CFIA suspension will stay in place until that happens.

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