Jim Romahn: Maple Leaf, Michael McCain and unanswered questions

Canadian reporter Jim Romahn writes:

Michael H. McCain is a wily strategist.

First, as president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Foods Inc., he made a big deal of dismissing advice from the company’s lawyers and accountants to not admit any liability for Canada’s most notorious case of food poisoning last summer.

He won praise from business reporters and public relations consultants for that.

In fact, the spin doctors had much more to say about that than the failure to safeguard consumers of Maple Leaf deli meats.

Now McCain has pulled an even better trick.

He has claimed the high moral ground in settling class-action lawsuits.

For $27 million, tops, he has bought freedom from a court case that could have proven highly embarrassing to Maple Leaf.

The ongoing coverage could well have become the final nail in consumer confidence in Maple Leaf products.

The lawyers were sure to ask who knew what and when.

They were sure to ask about the degree of plant contamination as the company continued to ship products, failing to first hold them for testing and clearance.

That, of course, is what’s being done now.

The lawyers will trot out evidence that more than half of the samples – one each from different batches or products – collected by municipal health units across Ontario contained Listeria monocytogenes.

The lawyers would no doubt challenge McCain’s claim that Listeria are so common in food-processing plants that it’s challenging at the best of times to eliminate them. They might have conceded that to be true of listeria in general, but would ask how Maple Leaf handled the more dangerous strain that showed up at the Bartor Road plant in Toronto.

The lawyers will ask why Maple Leaf ignored Health Canada warnings that cold cuts should not be served to people with weak immune systems – i.e. the elderly, infants and young children, pregnant women and those under medical treatment to suppress their immune systems.

Why do Maple Leaf’s cold cuts fail to warn these people about Health Canada’s advice? Of course, the same could be said of the labels on any Canadian-made cold cuts. Buyer beware!

The last place Canadians can turn to for answers to these questions is the inquiry Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised in the heated exchanges of an election campaign as the Listeria crisis continued.

I notice that Harper did not promise a PUBLIC inquiry.

He has not named a person or panel to head an inquiry.

He has not promised to reveal a report of an inquiry or its recommendations.

I’m certain the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Maple Leaf will be lobbying hard for Harper and his government to forget the promise of an inquiry. And, failing that to “contain the damage,” as the public relations are wont to advise.

So two goals scored by McCain so far. Will he make it a hat trick.

I sincerely hope not, but given Canada’s record on food safety in the food business, I’m far from optimistic.

Or as The Kids in the Hall asked, Who’s to Blame?