Food safety is not in the eyes of the beholder

As someone with experience in microbiology, I have high standards for sanitation. (I always wash my hands after picking up a bag of raw chicken—even if it’s frozen—and I wipe down the counter, too.) My mother, on the other hand, focuses on visual cleanliness. Since she’s on her way for a visit, I’m doing all the things that I don’t find quite so important, like dusting and putting my husband’s toys away. While, despite my efforts, her house will always look better than mine, I’m content to think my family will get less diarrhea.

Michael McCain is the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, which allowed an undetected build-up of pathogenic listeria deep inside its slicing machines to contaminate deli meats that eventually killed 22 Canadians and sickened 57 more.

He stated yesterday that, despite concerns by the media and a meat inspectors’ labor union that overworked inspectors spend most of their time doing paperwork, more visual inspections would not have made a difference. Inspectors, without the aid of listeria-vision goggles, could not have seen the bacteria that contaminated the meats.

While regulators play an important role in persuading food producers to make safe products, it’s the culture of each organization that primarily determines whether they produce safe food.

In the case of Maple Leaf Foods, communication with consumers during the outbreak (as discussed by Doug and Ben) demonstrated that it was an organization that recognized the value of producing safe food. Their failure to detect L. monocytogenes in product samples led to a $50 million recall, settlements to victims totaling $27 million, and a loss of business that suggested they could do more to act out the food safety culture they had fostered.

No scrap of such a culture could be found at Peanut Corporation of America when the peanut products it was shipping sickened 714 people across the US. As of yesterday, claims totaling $202 million have been filed against PCA in U.S. Bankruptcy Court on behalf of the people who were sickened and families who lost loved ones in its salmonella outbreak, in addition to companies that bought contaminated PCA products for use in their own food products.

Smart food producers and preparers know that it pays to take responsibility for the safety of your products, no matter how closely an inspector (governmental or parental) is watching.