Maple Leaf listeria vp apologizes for bad comedy routine

The Toronto Star reports this morning that a Maple Leaf Foods executive has apologized after joking about last year’s listeria outbreak in Canada that killed 22 people.

There are any number of elements that make this story particularly gross and uniquely Canadian.

It all began one-year ago yesterday – or at least that’s what Maple Leaf CEO and spokesthingy Michael McCain would have Canadians believe. McCain and Maple Leaf ran full-page advertisements in newspapers across Canada yesterday, saying oops, sorry about that listeria thing that killed 22 people last fall.

McCain wrote on the company blog,

“It was a year ago on August 23, 2008 that some of our products were linked to the death of 22 Canadians and made many others very ill.”

That’s fantasy. Maple Leaf products were epidemiologically linked to illness and death in Canadians in July. Both the company and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have steadfastly refused to give a full accounting of who knew what when. But that’s not me talking – that’s from the chief medical officer of Ontario.

And then, I guess while Maple Leaf types were being credited for another PR sensitivity win, a video of a Maple Leaf vp surfaces showing him joking about the listeria illnesses and deaths. 

I blogged it yesterday, and within an hour, former B.C. Deputy Minister of Agriculture and current Maple Leaf vp Rory McAlpine (left, exactly as shown) wrote on

“I want to sincerely apologize on your blog for the joke with which I began my comments at the Conference earlier in August.  These were my personal remarks, and I appreciate in hindsight they were not appropriate given the Listeriosis outbreak and the death and illness it caused.  I didn’t in any way mean to make light of this tragedy and I feel terrible that my early remarks conveyed a callousness that I don’t feel. You have every right to call me on it and I am deeply sorry.   

“I hope my full remarks that day, the questions from the audience and my participation in the panel discussion reflect better on how acutely accountable I and everyone at Maple Leaf feels for what happened and all the actions we are taking to achieve our commitment to food safety leadership.”

That’s some well-sized kahunas. I’ve also said dumb things and had to apologize. But McCain said yesterday, “holding ourselves to a higher standard means we will act more quickly and more assertively when there is a potential food safety concern – even a small one.”

So, once again, before anyone at Maple Leaf gives lectures on how to handle a crisis – which Rory has done, it’s all online – make your listeria data public and put warning labels on your product so pregnant woman, the elderly and others don’t barf from your food.

As I told the Toronto Star,

"It’s nice that he apologized, but it would be better if he’d put warnings labels on products for old people and pregnant women and make (listeria test result) data public."

It’s also sorta gross that no one from the best and brightest conference at Couchiching where Rory laid down his comedian wares said anything about this until yesterday. They all seemed to have a ball (right). How Canadian.

Rory may not remember me but when he was deputy minister of agriculture, I was invited in Dec. 2003 to give a talk at a meeting of all the deputy ministers of agriculture, and I talked about how food safety reality should match rhetoric. Maybe Rory stepped out.

And I note Rory is on the International Advisory Council for the Ontario Agricultural College – or at least he was. When I was at the University of Guelph, the Dean du jour of OAC would annually speak to us lowly faculty about the need to be visionary and how we could use the advice of visionary dudes to be better professors.

So the Dean would spend college money on some sort of international advisory committee which was usually staffed with colleagues and cronies near and dear to the dean.

It’s true: the best and brightest do rise to the top. Kudos to Rory.

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About Douglas Powell

A former professor of food safety and the publisher of, Powell is passionate about food, has five daughters, and is an OK goaltender in pickup hockey. Download Doug’s CV here. Dr. Douglas Powell editor, retired professor, food safety 3/289 Annerley Rd Annerley, Queensland 4103 61478222221 I am based in Brisbane, Australia, 15 hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time