How a Chilean raspberry scam made its way into Canada leading to a norovirus outbreak - National | (2022)

In January 2017, Chilean Customs inspectors acted on a tip from a whistleblower: The country’s prized crop of raspberries was under threat.

How a Chilean raspberry scam made its way into Canada leading to a norovirus outbreak - National | (1)

Inspectors raided the offices of Frutti di Bosco, a little-known fruit trading company on the second floor of a tower block in downtown Santiago.

The files, company data and sales records they seized revealed a food trading racket that spanned three continents.

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At its heart was a fraud centered on raspberries. Low-cost frozen berries grown in China were shipped to a packing plant in central Chile. Hundreds of tons of fruit were repackaged and rebranded by Frutti di Bosco as premium Chilean-grown organics, then shipped to consumers in Canadian cities including Vancouver and Montreal, according to documents prepared by Chilean Customs as part of its investigation. The agency calculated that at least $12 million worth of mislabeled raspberries were sent toCanadabetween 2014 and 2016.

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Much of that product, the documents showed, came from Harbin Gaotai Food Co Ltd, a Chinese supplier. Canadian health authorities later linked berries from Harbin Gaotai to a 2017 norovirus outbreak in Quebec that sickened hundreds of people. Canadian authorities issued a recall on Harbin Gaotai berries coming directly toCanadafrom China dating back to July 2016.

What they didn’t realize is that Harbin Gaotai raspberries had also enteredCanadathrough a backdoor during that period in the form of falsely labeled fruit shipped from Chile by Frutti di Bosco.

The scheme, pieced together for the first time by Reuters, lays bare the ease with which mislabeled, potentially risky products can be slipped past the world’s health and customs agencies, even as authorities across the globe scramble to ensure foods entering their countries are free of a new scourge – COVID-19.

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Harbin Gaotai did not reply to requests to comment for this report.

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Frutti di Bosco’s owner, Cesar Ramirez, who was convicted last year in Chile for falsifying export documents to facilitate the scheme, declined to speak with Reuters. His attorney declined to comment.

Reuters examined thousands of pages of legal filings, investigation documents and trade records obtained through freedom-of-information requests in Chile andCanada. Reuters also spoke to more than two dozen people with knowledge of the case, including the manager of a fruit-packing house that uncovered the deception.

Pulling off the fraud was relatively simple, the investigation revealed.

TheCanada-Chile trade pact, which came into force in 1997, allows exporters to self-certify the provenance of their goods, trade experts said. The agreement allowed the mislabeled berries to enterCanadatariff-free, evading a six per cent levy slapped on the same fruit imported directly from China, Chilean Customs documents show.

More lucrative still, conventional fruit represented as “organic” could fetch premium prices, piggybacking on Chile’s reputation for safety and quality. Documents certifying the fruit as organic were faked, customs inspectors found.

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Chile kept it quiet

Chile’s export fruit industry, alerted by Customs to the whistleblower complaint in late 2016, immediately grasped the potential fallout for the $7 billion sector, according to correspondence obtained by Reuters under Chile’s Transparency Act.

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The southern hemisphere nation stocks grocers in the United States,Canadaand Europe with grapes, cherries, blueberries and raspberries in the northern winter. If word got out that Chile’s fruit was not what it purported to be – or worse still, if someone got sick – it could tarnish its hard-won image.

“This situation could generate serious problems for the food industry in our country,” Ronald Bown, head of the Chilean Fruit Exporters Association, wrote in a Nov. 15, 2016 letter to Customs obtained by Reuters. He asked the agency to investigate the whistleblower’s allegations and warned of “the closing of markets” to Chilean fruit.

Read more: Food fraud: study shows Canadians fear risks

Bown confirmed writing the letter and repeated the same concerns when approached by Reuters on July 30.

Chile did not notifyCanadathat anything was amiss, however, according to Canadian officials. An alert failed to materialize even after Ramirez, Frutti di Bosco’s owner, alleged he had colluded with the buyer of the fruit – Montreal-based Alasko Foods Inc – to ship the illicit products toCanada, according to Chilean investigation records.

Canada’s food inspection agency said it is now investigating the matter after Reuters contacted authorities there for this story.

Alasko denied wrongdoing. The company is insolvent and entered into receivership last month, according to documents filed Sept. 10 in Quebec Superior Court by financial consultancy Raymond Chabot, Inc, the court-appointed receiver. Raymond Chabot declined to comment.

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Alasko officials did not respond to requests for comment regarding the receivership.

The company’s promotional materials claim it is one ofCanada’s leading purveyors of frozen fruit, with products sold in Costco and Sam’s Club. Costco declined to comment. Sam’s Club did not respond to a request for comment.

Ramirez told Chilean Customs investigators that Alasko ordered the repackaging of the Chinese berries “because it was more economical to do it in Chile,” to take advantage of the Chile-Canadafree-trade deal, Customs records show. He made the same allegations in a civil lawsuit he filed in Chile´s capital Santiago in June 2019, claiming Alasko had “directly financed and supervised” the operation.Canadareceived 84 per cent of Frutti di Bosco’s produce shipments, the Customs investigation found.

Ramirez last year pleaded guilty to two criminal counts of making false statements on export declarations. He received a $6,266 fine and a suspended 122-day jail sentence. Chilean Customs had recommended a maximum fine of $55.6 million.

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His lawsuit seeks $26 million in damages from Alasko and Chilean businessman Mauricio Rebolledo. Ramirez claims in the suit he was duped into participating as a front man in the scam by Rebolledo, whom he alleges operated on behalf of Alasko.

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Ramirez told Chilean Customs his firm paid sales commissions to a business tied to Rebolledo, according to investigators’ notes on the raid of Frutti di Bosco’s offices seen by Reuters. Customs did not mention Rebolledo in its final report about the investigation.

Prosecutors did not charge Rebolledo in the case.

In a written response to Reuters, Rebolledo said he was an independent fruit broker who had done business with both Frutti di Bosco and Alasko. He said he was not Alasko’s representative in Chile.

Rebolledo denied wrongdoing and said Ramirez’s allegations about his involvement in the illegal scheme were “false and tendentious.” Rebolledo said the civil suit was “unjustified” and an attempt by Ramirez to “confuse and hold others responsible” for his own misdeeds.

Alasko and Rebolledo have contested the suit, arguing it should be thrown out on grounds of inadequate evidence. The case is pending.

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Frutti di Bosco continued shipping fruit, including raspberries labeled as Chilean, to Alasko through at least 2018, according to internal company shipping documents and export declarations viewed by Reuters.

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Alasko said in a March 6 statement that it has always complied with all regulations on fruit imports and exports. It said it no longer does business with Frutti di Bosco and declined to comment specifically on that firm’s illicit activity.

“It is the responsibility of the growers and packers to have the proper food safety and organic certifications, and to provide the associated documentation” required for shipments toCanada, Alasko said in the email.

Tweet ThisClick to share quote on Twitter: "It is the responsibility of the growers and packers to have the proper food safety and organic certifications, and to provide the associated documentation" required for shipments to<span class="highlight" data-qa-component="highlight-text">Canada</span>, Alasko said in the email.

The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA), however, said importers also play a key role in keeping consumers safe. The “onus is on importers of food intoCanadato ensure that they source safe food from reliable suppliers and that the food meets all Canadian regulatory requirements,” the CFIA told Reuters in an email.

A Canadian government spokeswoman said her country’s Foreign Ministry, the CFIA and theCanadaBorder Services Agency had no records of the case or communication about it from the Chilean government.

Chilean trade expert Hugo Baierlein said the reported lack of communication was highly irregular. He said it would have been standard practice for Chilean officials to reach out in such circumstances. Baierlein served as director of foreign trade for SOFOFA, the Federation of Chilean Industry, an umbrella group that represents Chilean industry.

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Chilean Customs would not say whether it had contactedCanada, and that any such communications would be confidential.

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The economic relations arm of Chile´s Foreign Ministry declined to answer questions about whether Chile had informedCanada. The agency defended Chile’s handling of the case. “The administrative and judicial procedures operated fully,” a spokeswoman said.

Neither Chile´s Foreign or Customs ministries would comment on any new steps they have taken to deter cheating and ensure the integrity of the country’s produce exports.

‘So obvious’

Chilean Customs officials were alerted to something fishy in late 2016, when they received a letter from Fruticola Olmue, one of the country’s top fruit-packing plants, located in Chillan, 250 miles south of the capital.

Juan Sutil, the owner of a major Chilean food conglomerate and now head of Chile’s influential Chamber of Commerce and Production, had purchased Fruticola Olmue the previous year. An internal audit raised red flags about work the plant had done for Frutti di Bosco, according to a letter dated Oct. 24, 2016, seen by Reuters, which was signed by Fruticola Olmue General Manager Juan Miguel Ovalle.

Ovalle’s team found that the Fruticola Olmue plant had repackaged imported fruit into plastic bags labeled as Chilean organics, a practice that started under the facility’s previous owners in 2014 and was still happening when new management discovered it, according to documents in the Chilean Customs investigation.

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Max Hassler, the former CEO of Fruticola Olmue and a current member of its board of directors, did not reply to a request for comment. He was not charged by prosecutors.

In the first seven months of 2016 alone, Fruticola Olmue appeared to have packed at least 400 tonnes of mislabeled fruit bound forCanada, enough to fill 25 shipping containers, its letter to Customs said.

“It was so obvious,” Ovalle, who no longer works for Fruticola Olmue, told Reuters. “All of (Frutti di Bosco’s) raw material was imported.”

Fruticola Olmue cut ties with Frutti di Bosco on Oct. 24, 2016, the same day it alerted Customs, according to a separate letter it sent to Frutti di Bosco and seen by Reuters. Fruticola Olmue told Reuters it no longer does business with Ramirez, Canadian frozen fruit firm Alasko, or Rebolledo, the fruit broker.

Searching Frutti di Bosco’s books, Customs inspectors found that between 2014 and 2016 the company had exported more than 3,600 tonnes of fruit and vegetables. The provenance of half that produce wasn’t clear, agency records show.Canadawas by far the top export destination, but Frutti di Bosco also shipped to the United States, Kuwait, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. In their final report to agency leaders, Customs inspectors recommended the investigation be expanded to determine the sources of all the company’s produce.

Read more: Study finds Montreal seafood labelling fishy

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The investigation dossier provides no evidence of an expanded probe. Customs told Reuters it pursued all avenues and that no open questions remained.

The agency’s final report said Alasko was a major supplier of foreign-sourced fruit that Frutti di Bosco imported into Chile, as well as the top purchaser of Frutti di Bosco’s exports. Chilean Customs did not recommend criminal charges against Alasko.

It did, however, state in its final report that the “scope of this investigation goes beyond our national territory,” and that it appeared “Chinese and Canadian companies” had used Chile as a middleman to dodge tariffs.

Guillermo Gonzalez, head of ChileAlimentos, a trade group that represents Chile´s food industry, condemned the raspberry fraud, but called it an “isolated” incident.

Others aren’t so sure. Complex global supply chains mean law enforcement can’t keep up with players looking to game the system, according to Gary Ades, a U.S.-based food safety consultant.

A dragnet led by Europol and Interpol across 78 countries, including the United States and much of Europe, turned up 16,000 tonnes and 33 million liters of suspect food and drink in just five months in late 2018 and 2019. Consultants estimate food fraud costs the global industry billions of dollars annually.

Ades said the faux Chilean fruit caper would have been easy to pull off. “You just get it into a packing house, and you can’t tell where things are going,” he said. “It’s very, very difficult to trace.”

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Illness in Canada

As Chile investigated Frutti di Bosco in early 2017,Canadasaw an outbreak of norovirus, a highly contagious stomach flu often triggered by food tainted with human feces. It ripped through convalescent homes and children’s daycare centers in Quebec between March and August of 2017, according to a report from Quebec’s Health Ministry and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. More than 700 people fell ill, the ministry said.

The culprit: Frozen raspberries imported from China, according to an investigation byCanada’s CFIA, the food inspection agency. The supplier: Harbin Gaotai, one of the major sources of raspberries repackaged in the Chilean export scam. Reuters obtained a copy of the CFIA report on the probe viaCanada’s Access to Information Act.

Read more: CFIA issues Quebec-wide raspberry mousse recall

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Harbin Gaotai, based in Binzhou, China, didn’t respond to requests for comment. Its products have raised concerns elsewhere. The company since 2009 has been on a U.S. Food and Drug Administration watchlist after American authorities found raspberry shipments containing illegal pesticide residue.

InCanada, the outbreak prompted a recall of all raspberry products originating from Harbin Gaotai arriving inCanadabetween July 24, 2016 and July 26, 2017. The Canadian investigation identifiedCanada’s Alasko Foods as one of three importers of the tainted berries.

The Chilean Customs investigation showed that Frutti di Bosco was shipping repackaged Chinese raspberries to Alasko inCanadauntil the end of 2016, which directly overlapped with the period of the Canadian recall.

Read more: These are the most common food-borne illnesses and what foods carry them

Some of those Chinese berries were supplied by Harbin Gaotai and shipped to Chile via a middleman – New Zealand-based Directus South East Asia Ltd – according to international trade and ship cargo data viewed by Reuters.

Directus told Reuters it had shipped raspberries to Chile in 2016 but was “not aware of any fraud.” It said it had no relationship with Alasko or Frutti di Bosco beyond those shipments.

No one knows whether the Harbin Gaotai raspberries imported via Chile contributed to the Canadian norovirus outbreak. Canadian authorities, unaware at the time of the illicit triangulation, said they never knew to look.


© 2020 Reuters


Where does Canada get raspberries from? ›

Canada imports frozen raspberries from Chile, Serbia, USA and Mexico. Serbia is also increasing its exports to Canada and in 2020 delivered a record volume of frozen raspberries – 6.8 thousand tons. Poland supplies Canada with approximately the same volume of frozen raspberries as the United States.

Is fruit from Chile safe? ›

The FDA banned the import of Chilean fruit and warned people not to eat grapes or Chilean fruit after investigators found traces of cyanide in two seedless red grapes shipped from Chile to Philadelphia.

Can I bring raspberries into Canada? ›

The harvesting and packing of wild fresh raspberries and wild fresh blackberries has not been evaluated by the Canadian Government, therefore, no fresh wild raspberries or blackberries can be allowed entry into Canada at any time.

Where is the raspberry capital of the world? ›

From the late 1920s through the war years, Hopkins dominated the raspberry scene in Minnesota and for that matter, the nation. It became known as the “Raspberry Capital of the World.” But berry growing was hard work.

Is it safe to eat frozen blueberries from Chile? ›

Making berries safe to eat

You can make frozen berries safe to eat by either: bringing them to the boil, or. cooking them at 85 degrees Celsius for at least 1 minute.

Do blueberries from Chile have pesticides? ›

When you look up blueberries, blueberries from Chile are on par in terms of pesticide residues with berries grown in Canada and the U.S. Until recently, Canada required that Chilean fruit such as grapes and blueberries be fumigated with methyl bromide before entering the country in order to control pests.

Are blueberries from Chile good? ›

Chile is one of the largest exporters of blueberries in the world. Chile has 15,601 hectares planted with Highbush blueberries. Seventeen percent of these are organic. Chile has an ongoing commitment to finding new and better varieties to provide an outstanding consumer experience in terms of flavor, size, and texture.

What fruit can you not bring into Canada? ›

3) Declare the product
ProductRestrictions and requirements
Fresh fruits or vegetablesRefer to AIRS. Products may be restricted or prohibited from entry into Canada depending on the country of origin.
Processed fruit or vegetables (including herbs) such as dried, frozen, cannedNone
Game animal carcassesNot permitted
18 more rows
Jul 7, 2022

What food is not allowed into Canada? ›

Items You Cannot Bring Into Canada
  • Food: Fresh fruits and vegetables and animal and fish products.
  • Live bait: Don't bring minnows, leeches, smelts, or leeches on your fishing trips. ...
  • Weapons: Guns and firearms, ammunition, fireworks, and mace and pepper spray are not allowed.
May 28, 2020

What country grows the most raspberries? ›

Production. In 2020, world production of raspberries was 895,771 tonnes, led by Russia with 20% of the world total (table). Other major producers were Mexico, Poland, Serbia, and the United States.

What is the raspberry capital of Canada? ›

Abbotsford has a diverse economy. Industries employing significant numbers of residents include retail, health care and social assistance, manufacturing, construction, and transportation and warehousing. The agricultural sector is also important. The city is known as the “Raspberry Capital of Canada.”

Which state produces the most raspberries? ›

Eat those berries!

California is the biggest producer of fresh raspberries in the U.S. Washington state is the largest producer of raspberries for freezing, as Oregon is for blackberries. More than 75% of fresh blackberries consumed in the U.S. are grown in Mexico.

Why is there a shortage of raspberries? ›

"Yields of both summer and remontant raspberries have declined due to the cold spring of this year. The harvest shortage was at the level of 20-40%. There was also a crop failure in the world's major producers of raspberries - Serbia and Poland.

Is it safe to eat frozen raspberries? ›

Is it OK to eat frozen raspberries? Yes, it is safe to eat frozen raspberries, and using them straight from frozen works particularly well in smoothies and porridge. In order to enjoy the best flavour from your raspberries, we would advise you to eat them at room temperature.

Should you wash frozen berries? ›

The American Frozen Food Institute (AFFI) clarifies that frozen fruit is safe and ready-to-eat straight from the package, no need to wash it. This is due to its higher levels of acidity and sugar, making it unlikely that harmful bacteria could grow on it at freezer temperatures.

Can you eat defrosted raspberries? ›

If you thaw frozen berries most of them will be very soft and almost puree like. They aren't that pleasure to eat anymore as such. However, they do still contain all the sugars and flavors from the fresh berries. As a matter of fact, they likely contain a bit more of it.

What foods are highest in glyphosate? ›

List of foods with the most glyphosate
CropAnnual average (Lbs. Glyphosate)Percent crop treated
6 more rows
Dec 15, 2020

Does rinsing blueberries remove pesticides? ›

Drain the blueberries in a colander and rinse them under cool running water for at least 30 seconds while using the friction of your fingertips to clear away any pesticide residue.

Are raspberries on the Dirty Dozen list? ›

Blueberries and strawberries each had 13. Bell peppers as a group had 88 different pesticide residues. Cucumbers had 81 and lettuce had 78.
The Dirty Dozen, The Clean Fifteen and Everything In Between.
1. Apples26. Green Onions
22. Raspberries47. Pineapples
23. Summer Squash48. Sweet Corn
24. Oranges49. Onions
25. Broccoli
20 more rows
Apr 17, 2013

Does Chile use pesticides on fruit? ›

The fruit sector is a major contributor to the development of exports; more than 60% of national fruit production in most species is exported. The “boom” in Chilean agriculture has, however, caused a progressive growth of imports of pesticides, which rose by 48% in the decade of the 1990s (Vallebuona Stagno 2015).

Is DDT used in Chile? ›

In Chile, the importation, manufacture, sale, distribution, and use of the following compounds have been prohibited: DDT since 1984, aldrin since 1988, and chlordane, dieldrin, endrin, and heptachlor, since 1987.

Are imported blueberries safe to eat? ›

Are fresh berries safe/ok to eat? There is no evidence to suggest that fresh Irish or fresh imported berries are a risk. Fresh berries should be washed before consumption which is in keeping with the advice for all fresh fruit and vegetables.

Where do most raspberries come from? ›

Production occurs across much of the country, although most of it is concentrated in California, Oregon and Washington. California leads the nation in both black and red raspberry production (NASS, 2021).

Who is the largest producer of raspberries? ›

Production. In 2020, world production of raspberries was 895,771 tonnes, led by Russia with 20% of the world total (table). Other major producers were Mexico, Poland, Serbia, and the United States.

Where do raspberries come from? ›

About 90 percent of all raspberries in the US are grown in Oregon, Washington, and California. However, Wisconsin-grown raspberries can be found throughout the late summer. When explorers and settlers arrived in North America, they discovered a black raspberry growing.

Where do the best raspberries come from? ›

Scotland is famous for producing the finest raspberry crops in the world, celebrated for the richness and depth of their flavour and the juiciness of their fruits.

What are the dangers of eating raspberries? ›

Raspberries, along with fruits such as apples, peaches, avocados and blueberries, contain natural chemicals called salicylates. Some people are sensitive to these compounds and may experience an allergic reaction, such as skin rash or swelling.

Are raspberry leaves poisonous? ›

Additionally, while it is safe to harvest raspberry leaves from both wild and domestic plants, be sure that the plants have never been treated or exposed to chemical pesticides and fertilizers, as these chemicals are toxic if consumed.

What do raspberries do for your body? ›

They provide potassium, essential to heart function, and proven to lower blood pressure. The omega-3 fatty acids in raspberries can help prevent stroke and heart disease. They also contain a mineral called manganese, which is necessary for healthy bones and skin and helps regulate blood sugar.

Can dogs eat raspberries? ›

Yes, dogs can eat raspberries. Raspberries are fine in moderation. They contain antioxidants that are great for dogs. They're low in sugar and calories, but high in fiber, manganese, and vitamin C.

Are raspberries better than strawberries? ›

Raspberries are richer in all aspects and have a higher fiber content compared to strawberries. Raspberries are relatively richer in most vitamins and minerals. However, strawberries contain a higher vitamin C content comparably. Overall, raspberries and strawberries have very similar nutritional compositions.

Why are raspberries not called red berries? ›

Strawberries and raspberries aren't really berries in the botanical sense. They are derived from a single flower with more than one ovary, making them an aggregate fruit. True berries are simple fruits stemming from one flower with one ovary and typically have several seeds.

Which berry is healthiest? ›

A: Blueberries are overall, the most nutritional berry. They are much more nutrient-dense than blackberries and are contain a greater number of antioxidants as well as key vitamins and minerals.

What are the black dots inside raspberries? ›

The black dots on your raspberries are actually caused by an infection. Per David's Giant Vegetables, it turns out those black spots are probably being caused by a fungal or bacterial infection.

What is a group of raspberries called? ›

Instead, they are aggregate fruit: clusters of many individual sections called drupelets, each containing one seed. The drupelets grow over a fleshy center core called the receptacle and are held together by tiny hairs.

What is the best tasting raspberry? ›

Some of the best-tasting raspberry varieties are Tulameen, Caroline, Anne, and Himbo Top. For any variety, a single plant can produce tastier berries some years as compared to others (particularly during sunny summers or when the canes are older).

Can I grow a raspberry bush from a raspberry? ›

While most commercial raspberry varieties are grown by vegetative propagation, most home gardeners can easily just plant raspberry seeds. Seed grown raspberries will make the same amount of fruit as propagated plants, and will offer a better quality of fruit.

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