Great communications, lousy management: Is Maple Leaf the new Odwalla?

Last week I dusted off some old slides to talk with an industry group about best practices in food safety. I got bored of hearing myself say the same thing about 10 years ago, but sometimes, it’s best to stick to basics.

Risk analysis is composed of risk assessment, management and communication. Over the years I’ve studied dozens of outbreaks of foodborne illness and concluded that a producer, or processor, or retailer needs to be excellent at all three—assessment, management and communication – and if they fail at just one, they will suffer the economic and associated hardships.

There is no doubt that Michael McCain and Maple Leaf Foods has practiced excellent risk communication since being fingered as the source of a listeria outbreak in Canada that killed at least 20 and sickened 60. I’ve said so from the beginning. I’ve also said that

it is impossible to judge whether Maple Leaf was practicing good risk management and assessment because no one will come clean on who knew what when as the outbreak was developing.

But that hasn’t stopped Canadians from gushing in a blindly patriotic way about how McCain set the ‘gold standard’ for reputational and financial management.

Maybe, but communications alone is never enough, just like science alone is never enough. And precisely because no one – government or industry – has come clean on who knew what when, it’s not surprising to hear

the Canadian federal government has delayed for months the release of notes on conference calls

held at the height of last summer’s deadly listeriosis outbreak — a lag some experts say breaks Ottawa’s own information laws.

At issue is an Access to Information request by The Canadian Press to the Privy Council Office for “all transcripts and minutes” of the crucial exchanges last August and September.

The Odwalla 1996 outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in unpasteurized juice was also textbook risk communication, but the company was eventually revealed to have cut corners and ignored warning signs. Will Maple Leaf undergo similar scrutiny?

Below is an except from my 1997 book, Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk, about the Odwalla outbreak.

Sometime in late September 1996, 16-month-old Anna Gimmestad of Denver has a glass of Smoothie juice manufactured by  Odwalla Inc. After her parents noticed bloody diarrhea, Anna was admitted to Children’s Hospital on Oct. 16.  On 8 November 1996 she died after going into cardiac and respiratory arrest.  Anna had severe kidney problems, related to hemolytic uremic syndrome and her heart had stopped several times in previous days.

The juice Anna — and 65 others who got sick — drank was contaminated with E. coli O157:H7, linked to fresh, unpasteurized apple cider used as a base in the juices manufactured by Odwalla.  Because they are unpasteurized, Odwalla’s drinks are shipped in cold storage and have only a two-week shelf life.  Odwalla was founded 16 years ago on the premise that fresh, natural fruit juices nourish the spirit.  And the bank balance: in fiscal 1996, Odwalla sales jumped 65 per cent to $60 million (U.S.).  Company chairman Greg Steltenpohl has told reporters that the company did not routinely test for E. coli because it was advised by industry experts that the acid level in the apple juice was sufficient to kill the bug.

Who these industry experts are remains a mystery.  Odwalla insists the experts were the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  The FDA isn’t sure who was warned and when.   In addition to all the academic research and media coverage concerning VTEC cited above — even all of the stories involving VTEC surviving in acidic environments — Odwalla claims ignorance.

In terms of crisis management — and outbreaks of foodborne illness are increasingly contributing to the case study literature on crisis management — Odwalla responded appropriately.  Company officials responded in a timely and compassionate fashion, initiating a complete recall and co-operating with authorities after a link was first made on Oct. 30 between their juice and illness.  They issued timely and comprehensive press statements, and even opened a web site containing background information on both the company and E. coli O157:H7.  Upon learning of Anna’s death, Steltenpohl issued a statement which said, “On behalf of myself and the people at Odwalla, I want to say how deeply saddened and sorry we are to learn of the loss of this child.  Our hearts go out to the family and our primary concern at this moment is to see that we are doing everything we can to help them.”

For Odwalla, or any food firm to say it had no knowledge that E. coli O157 could survive in an acid environment is unacceptable.  When one of us called this $60-million-a-year-company with the great public relations, to ask why they didn’t know that E. coli O157 was a risk in cider, it took over a day to return the call.   That’s a long time in crisis-management time.  More galling was that the company spokeswoman said she had received my message, but that her phone mysteriously couldn’t call Canada that day.

Great public relations; lousy management.  What this outbreak, along with cyclospora in fresh fruit in the spring of 1996 and dozens of others, demonstrates is that, vigilance, from farm to fork, is a mandatory requirement in a global food system.  Risk assessment, management and communication must be interlinked to accommodate new scientific and public information.  And that includes those funky and natural fruit juices.