A teaspoon of spice added to a chicken recipe at a restaurant just north of Toronto set off a chain reaction that rippled all the way to Canada’s West Coast and beyond.
The chicken was prepared at Delight Restaurant & BBQ on Castlemore Avenue in Markham, Ont. It was served at the end of August 2022 and, within hours, several people were in hospital — four in intensive care.
The spice’s packing, imported from Hong Kong, said it was galanga powder, a root similar to ginger. But it wasn’t — it was an ingredient used in traditional medicine. A labelling mistake on the other side of the world meant chefs were adding potentially deadly aconite toxins to their food.
The powder inside the packet they were using contained a herb used in some medicine that was not classified for human consumption. The aconitine toxin comes from the roots of the poisonous monkshood plant, which is also known as wolfsbane or keampferia.
A total of 11 people were sent to Markham Stouffville Hospital by the labelling error, triggering an unprecedented response. That number was thought to be 12 originally, but health-care workers concluded it was 11 people who were poisoned.
Health officials and police jumped into action to investigate the cause, while Canada’s minister of public safety issued a statement to reassure Ontarians.
“It was more media, more activity than we had for a really long time, including COVID, because it was so severe,” Dr. Barry Pakes, York Region’s medical officer of health, told Global News.
Health-care workers reported that the 11 people who ate the chicken experienced stomach-aches, vomiting and unconsciousness. The entire situation, which resulted in no fatal poisonings, could have been infinitely worse.
“The worst-case scenario is quite remarkable,” Pakes said. “You could have had many, many deaths. We didn’t have any deaths in Ontario and the reason for that is these people got immediate, life-saving treatment — these people were resuscitated… If someone had decided, and this was later in the evening, let’s just go to sleep and sleep it off, you’d have several people who would have passed away as a result.”
Away from the emergency room, a recall effort began that stretched across the country, from stores in Toronto all the way to Burnaby, B.C.
Through interviews with public health, food safety staff and documents obtained via access to information laws, Global News has tracked how staff worked to investigate and then solve the potentially deadly labelling mistake.
Markham, Ont. restaurant where 12 people were accidentally poisoned allowed to reopen
An importer’s warehouse
Public health officials were quick to trace the source of the mislabelled spice.
Documents suggest the restaurant bought it at a local supermarket specializing in different ethnic foods. The store had previously sold the spice to the restaurant without incident. That supermarket had ordered it from an importer who, in turn, had brought the product from Hong Kong.
By as early as 4 p.m. on the day of the incident, inspectors had worked out that the packet came from a company registered to an address in Scarborough. It turned out to be a PO box.
The importer’s warehouse was actually located in Markham, with the importer telling inspectors he regularly moved his business around as he expanded. Documents suggest he had been importing the galanga powder spice for two decades and said he had not had previous complaints.
“It was a really important piece here that we have close connections with the community already,” Pakes said. “We have people who work (as) public health inspectors, who spoke Mandarin and Cantonese, who were from the community.”
The importer was unaware of the near-disaster the mislabelled powder had caused until officials told him. He told inspectors he only found out about the problem when they sent him pictures of the offending product.
“He received (it) mislabelled as keampferia galanga powder and he never realized that it had happened as his employees just read the name in Cantonese, which was also keampferia galanga powder, and they sold it as keampferia galanga powder,” part of an inspection report explained.
The report added that the product was sold as it arrived from Hong Kong without repacking.
Essentially, the documents explain, a labelling mistake before the spice ever arrived in Canada led to the issue. Although the correct identifying code on the packet showed it was traditional medicine, not food, the mislabelled name was all that anyone read.
Officials investigating after alleged food poisoning at Markham restaurant
A mammoth recall effort
On Sept. 1, Health Canada issued a recall notice for Mr. Right Galanga Powder, the product at the centre of the mislabelling storm.
The recall notice was sent out across Canada after the recalled product was sold in Alberta, British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec, ordering anyone with any packets of the spice to either throw them away or return them to the place they were bought.
“The onset of symptoms is rapid,” it warned, listing vomiting, irregular heartbeats and even death as possible outcomes from consumption.
Officials began the painstaking task of ensuring no one was able to accidentally eat the potentially poisonous powder masquerading as a spice.
The first stop was a local grocery store in Markham, the location where chefs at Delight Restaurant and BBQ had bought the spice in the first place. Records shared with inspectors by the importer showed the store had bought the Mr. Right brand multiple times over the years.
At an event held outside the restaurant in September 2022, its owner said his staff were stepping up staff training and triple-checking labelling. He thanked his customers for their loyalty and pointed at the restaurant, too, as a victim of the mislabelling. Pakes, York’s medical officer of health, said the restaurant was “very cooperative” with his team of inspectors. It was a “very difficult situation,” he said, “through no fault of their own.”
Inspectors pulled the product from the grocery store’s shelves before the month of August was over and were told no other complaints had been made, recall reports seen by Global News show.
The restaurant, supermarket and importer were all based in York Region. Pakes said that meant an unofficial local recall was essentially already completed before the federal process got underway.
“We (were able to) go into all those places, start investigating, but at the same time make sure that none of this product was on the shelves anymore or able to be distributed,” he said.
A spokesperson for York Region Public Health said the product was only found in one grocery store, where 15 bags were seized.
The recall project, however, did not end there.
Health officials concluded five other import companies operating in British Columbia had bought spices from the same source in Hong Kong. A shop in Burnaby was also believed to have bought some of the powder and repacked it.
Canada’s food inspection agency told Global News that, after an investigation, it was determined none of the importers were mistakenly selling aconite as food. The Burnaby store repacked powder from various sources, “so the Agency cannot confirm with certainty that the aconite powder came from the same Ontario importer.”
“The recall was also made available in simplified and traditional Chinese with targeted proactive outreach to national and regional Chinese and South Asian media outlets,” a spokesperson for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency told Global News.
“The CFIA completed checks in all provinces where the recalled product was distributed to verify that the unsafe food was effectively removed from the marketplace.”
A new case, weeks later
More than a month after the product was recalled across the country, a man was rushed to intensive care in Scarborough.
“He became ill yesterday afternoon after eating a meal he prepared for himself at home using Mr Right galanga powder,” a note sent by Scarborough Health Network staff to Toronto Public Health explained in late October 2022.
The documents suggest the man made a meal for himself at home, which no one else ate, using the “exact product recalled after the Markham restaurant incident.”
The man said he had no idea where he had bought the product he thought was galanga spice.
Redacted portions of the document suggest that, as of October 2022, the entire mislabelled batch may not have been recalled. An email from health inspectors to the importer said, “Recently, only [redacted] packages of CAAJ13 had been retrieved.” The note said: “For an effective recall, all product has to be accounted for,” adding, “There may be more packages in the market.”
Pakes said that, while he felt a good job had been done communicating the risk of the product and working to make sure it was disposed of or recalled, it’s hard to guarantee it is gone entirely.
“It is absolutely impossible to know whether someone has this on their shelf and doesn’t know about it,” he said. “You could be five years from now and someone could have it on a shelf — we all have experience of having spices in the back of our cupboards that are 10, 15 years old.”
York Region Public Health advises anyone who has Mr. Right brand Keampferia Galanga Powder (with the codes AT154; 69 892102 8038) to throw the package away without opening it.
While there is still a chance the mislabelled spice could be haunting a kitchen cupboard in York Region and beyond, Pakes said the swift resolution and investigation of the issue are a testament to the protection public health bodies and legislation in Canada provide.
“There’s many different layers, all of which come together to protect people,” he said. “And fortunately things like this don’t happen that often.”