Canadian government about to be toppled bolsters food inspection

One of the reasons I largely ignore political chatter is the meaningless of it all.

The Conservative minority government unveiled its budget this afternoon and pledged to boost spending on Canada’s food inspection system by $100 million over the next five years.

The additional money for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is needed to fix problems flagged in 2009 in the wake of a deadly listeriosis outbreak, the government said.

Independent investigator Sheila Weatherill identified a series of food-safety gaps in Canada — including a void in leadership within the federal government — that helped contribute to a listeriosis outbreak in 2008 that left 22 Canadians dead.

They had all consumed tainted deli meats produced at a federally inspected plant in Toronto, operated by Maple Leaf Foods.

But the three opposition parties in the British-style Parliamentary system are all saying, the budget sucks, so let’s have yet another election.

Canadian bureaucrats shirked ‘duty to assist’ with listeria information request

The 2008 listeria outbreak in Canada caused by Maple Leaf deli meats that killed 23 and sickened 56 was characterized by multiple failures amongst multiple players – primarily Maple Leaf, the Canadian government, and dieticians at assisted-care facilities.

A few journalists tried to peel back the layers of palp but were often stonewalled. Yesterday, the federal information czar chastised the department that serves the Prime Minister for shirking its duty to assist The Canadian Press with an access-to-information request seeking files on the listeriosis outbreak.

The staff of Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, an ombudsman for users of the access law, took more than two years to rule on the news agency’s complaint.

The listeriosis matter dates back to an October 2008 request for all transcripts and minutes of conference calls in the previous two months on the health crisis.

Four months later, the Privy Council Office decided the records it possessed did not fall under the request because they were handwritten notes, not formal minutes or transcripts.

The information commissioner disagreed, and asked the PCO to process the notes.

The handwritten notes were not released to The Canadian Press until February this year — 28 months after the original access request was made.

Glacial government: CFIA still implementing recommendations from 2008 listeria outbreak

On Aug. 17, 2008, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Maple Leaf Foods, Inc. finally got around to telling Canadians they should avoid serving or consuming certain brands of deli meat as the products could be contaminated with L. monocytogenes. In the end, 23 deaths and 57 cases of listeriosis were linked to contaminated cold-cuts made by Maple Leaf.

In July 2009, investigator Sheila Weatherill who was appointed directly by the Canadian Prime Minister, issued a 181-page final report about the listeria crapfest, with 57 recommendations grouped into four broad categories:

– more focus on food safety among senior officials in both the public and private sectors;

– better preparedness for dealing with a serious foodborne illness with more advance planning for an emergency response;

– a greater sense of urgency if another foodborne emergency occurs; and,

– clearer communications with the Canadian public about listeriosis and
other foodborne illnesses, especially at risk populations and health professionals.


On Oct. 21, 2010, CFIA issued a couple of public reports, responding to the Weatherill report, all this over two-years after people starting barfing and dying from Maple Leaf meats. Buried within the bureaucratese are a few nuggets that show Canadian food safety types are trying to say the right thing – but really don’t get it.

Most of the media coverage focused on meat inspection protocols and complaints by the union of too few inspectors. There’s this big debate about who needs to do what and whether the federally-mandated Compliance Verification System (CVS), which sets out the procedures to be used by inspectors to verify the design and implementation of a plant’s food safety plan, is any good.

However, within the Oct. 2010 food safety progress report, the feds are apparently trying to come up with guidance on when to go public about food safety risks.

Health Canada is developing a federal guidance document on the weight of evidence needed to take action to protect consumers during foodborne illness outbreak investigations. The weight of evidence takes into consideration the microbiological information gathered through food sample testing and human illness reports, as well as the information collected from the follow-up investigation at food processing plants. Federal, provincial and territorial partners have been consulted on the draft guidance document. Health Canada also shared the document with selected international counterparts in June 2010. Once finalized, the document will be used by Health Canada, CFIA and PHAC during outbreak investigations.”

I look forward to the public availability of such a document, 14 years after the feds were criticized for the erroneous implication of California strawberries rather than Guatemalan raspberries as the source of a 1996 North America-wide cyclospora outbreak.

The Weatherill Report makes a number of recommendations to improve communication between government and the public on food safety and foodborne illness. The Government has taken steps to improve how and when it communicates with Canadians in general and with at-risk populations and key stakeholders, specifically. These steps take into consideration how it communicates food safety information in periods when there is no outbreak as well as during a national foodborne illness event.

In February 2010, the Government of Canada launched an online Food Safety Portal that offers a one-stop source for information about food safety and foodborne illness ( The food safety and foodborne illness information initiatives developed by CFIA, PHAC and Health Canada and described in this report can now be found on the Portal.

To raise awareness of the Food Safety Portal, CFIA sent out a social media news release that encourages individuals to share information about the Portal online by using social media book-marking and tagging options, thus ensuring the broadest possible outreach.

CFIA has also been using social media tools, such as Twitter, to reach a wider audience on food safety issues and recalls. The Agency has gained over 400 followers on Twitter, including representatives from the media, health organizations, consumer groups and cooking/food allergy bloggers. In addition, CFIA has developed a recall widget to automate further distribution of notices. Food safety stakeholders have been invited to embed the CFIA widget on their websites, blogs, or social media pages to display live content from CFIA on food recalls.

The Consumer Centre section of the CFIA website has also been redesigned to clearly explain the roles that consumers, government and industry play in food safety, and to provide more information on important food safety issues. In addition, CFIA is participating in six food-related events between May 2010 and March 2011 to promote the Food Safety Portal and raise awareness of safe food handling practices and recall procedures.

And it goes on and on.

Creating a new web site doesn’t mean anyone reads it. And using social media is of no use if the messages still suck. People dying from deli meat is not a food handling concern.

PHAC has developed a risk communications strategy that will guide how the Agency communicates to Canadians during a national foodborne illness outbreak. PHAC has begun to implement various components of the strategy so that it can communicate to the public, key stakeholders, and targeted at-risk populations (older adults, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems) more effectively. The strategy uses a variety of traditional and innovative formats, such as media events, web- and audio-casts, the Food Safety Portal, and stakeholder briefings. PHAC also collaborates with Health Canada to ensure that PHAC’s information for Canadians during a national outbreak is consistent with the food safety information that Health Canada provides.

There’s more but it’s tortuous. No evaluation of effectiveness, no indication that fewer people are barfing, no evidence that dieticians at care facilities won’t keep giving out cold deli meats to at-risk populations, no evidence that medical types at place like the Toronto Hospital for Sick Kids won’t keep dispensening stupid advice about listeria risks to pregnant women.

And for all the bureaucratese, no mention was made by anybody about Weatherill’s recommendation for precautionary labeling – warning labels – for listeria-vulnerable populations like pregnant women and old folks.

There must have been hundreds of fully salaried government types at all the meetings and in the report prep and website building and travel.
Maple Leaf or any other processor, government can continue to dither, you’re the ones losing customers and profits.

Make listeria testing results publicly available, and put warning labels or some sort of information available on the package. And stop saying deli meat is a consumer handling problem.

Waiting for government is like waiting for Godot.

Sol Erdozain: Food is a culture thing

Sol Erdozain writes:

Canyons Burger Co. is apparently a hamburger chain with a “culture centered on an active lifestyle,” advocating outdoor activities such as hiking and mountain biking.

They say it’s a company culture thing.

Moe’s Southwest Grill restaurants inspire clients to “be different” and encourage creativity and openness among employees.

That’s their culture thing.

Elevation Burger is all about organic ingredients and “doing good.”

It’s great that all these food chains are trying to bring something more to the table than just food; as long as it’s not foodborne pathogens and bacteria.

Maple Leaf Foods from Canada came out with a food safety pledge this year and advertised it through all sorts of outlets to try and clean up their image after a listeria outbreak in 2008. They vow that their company culture is all about food safety now. Maple Leaf said they had a culture of food safety before the 2008 outbreak, but that now they really have one.

Hopefully it won’t take an outbreak for these other food chains to incorporate food safety into their cultures.

Maple Leaf CEO: get your butt off that kitchen counter, someone may make food there

I don’t let cats or dogs or lizards on my food prep area, and I don’t let anyone plant their behind on my food prep area – who knows where that behind has been.

That’s what I took away from Maple Leaf Foods latest attempt to woo wary customers back to their delicious deli flavor.

Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain and some other food safety types from the company hosted a dine and lecture for bloggers on May 27 in the Toronto area, to update would-be social media leaders to go forth with the food safety crusade that has taken over Maple Leaf since the 2008 listeria outbreak which killed 22 people.

A number of bloggers have written about this event. They talk about the sweet food, the sincerity of the Maple Leaf types and the super swag. No one raised any hard questions like:

• why did Maple Leaf wait so long to issue a public recall of its killer products in 2008 when epidemiology clearly implicated the product;
• why aren’t listeria test results in Maple Leaf plants made public;
• why aren’t there warning labels on deli meats for at-risk populations, like pregnant women and all those old people that unnecessarily died; and,
• why aren’t Maple Leaf’s food safety efforts marketed at retail so consumers can choose?

Other companies that want to lead are already working in these areas, rather than wining and dining trendy bloggers.

In the U.S., Beef Products Inc. is figuring out how to make all its E. coli tests public, and Cargill is expanding the use of video in its slaughterhouses to enhance animal welfare and food safety.

The Publix supermarket chain in the southeast already labels its deli products to say,

“The Publix Deli is committed to the highest quality fresh cold cuts & cheeses.? Therefore we recommend all cold cuts are best if used within three days of purchase.? And all cheese items are best if used within four days of purchase.”

And not one of the bloggers mentioned, OMG, did you see that those nurses and doctors at Toronto Sick Kid’s hospital said pregnant women can eat all the cold-cuts and raw seafood they want, listeria’s not such a big deal after all.

But all I take away from reading all the blogs is this pic: dude, get your butt off the food prep area.

Maple Leaf makes lemon-scented food safety pledge

Maple Leaf Foods, the folks who made deli-meats that killed 23 Canadians in 2008, issued a public food safety pledge yesterday.

Fearless and empathetic leader Michael McCain, speaking on behalf of the 23,500 employees of Maple Leaf Foods, said

“We have spent the last 18 months seeking the advice of the best experts in the world (and in many cases hiring them), examined every one of our previous practices, made significant improvements in all areas of food safety – testing, training and sanitization – and worked with industry and government to raise the bar.”

Maybe. But you’ve retained the worst public relations advisors and it’s going to take a lot of lemons to cleanse the stench on this pledge. Below are all the components of the frat-boy type pledge (thank you sir, may I have another) exactly as it appeared, even though it’s far too wordy, with some editorial comments from me.

*We commit to becoming a global leader in food safety. Our Chief Food Safety Officer will lead the implementation of best practices in sanitation, testing, technologies, product formulations and manufacturing, and has the authority to stop production at any plant where he believes there may be a risk to food safety.”

Awesome. Will those test results be made public?

*We commit to building a strong culture of food safety, with high performance teams, through continuous training, education and communicating results. Our people are encouraged and expected to act on any food safety concern they may have to improve our food safety practices."

Communicating results, like making listeria test results public?

Public availability of food safety testing data underpins efforts to convince a skeptical public that a product is microbiologically safe.

Yes, testing has limitations, just like restaurant inspections, but the goal should be to figure out how best to make that information available – rather than saying people can’t have it or handle it.

On Dec. 31, 2009, Beef Products Inc. took a fairly public hit when the N.Y. Times questioned the efficacy of the company’s use of ammonia as an antimicrobial treatment for ground beef.

BPI founder and chairman Eldon Roth announced in February at the National Meat Association’s annual conference that the company will post on its Web site 100 per cent of its results from the processor’s testing for E. coli O157:H7 and salmonella.

"We’re going to be 100 percent transparent," Roth told Meatingplace in an interview following the announcement. … We’re not promising to be perfect, but I will promise that we will be better.”

That’s how it’s done.

*We commit to following the highest standard of testing and analysis to identify potential risk. Any test that raises food safety concerns will result in immediate quarantine, with no products leaving the plant until the Company (why is this capitalized? Is Maple Leaf its own nation-state? — dp) and government regulatory authorities are confident that the food is safe."

Test and hold. Sorta standard.

*We commit to setting and meeting high standards and measuring our performance against the Global Food Safety Initiative standards through independent audits which will also allow us to continuously improve."

Rather than relying on some auditor waltzing through the plant now and then, why not be able to prove how ab fab Maple Leaf is at this food safety thing. Borrow a page from Cargill (and activists around the world) and install your own video cameras to have data to support food safety pledges.

In April 2009, Cargill Beef announced it had implemented a third-party video-auditing system that would operate 24 hours a day at its U.S. beef plants to enhance the company’s animal welfare protection systems. All of Cargill’s U.S. plants were expected to have the program in place by the end of 2009.

In Feb. 2010, Cargill announced its expanded remote video auditing program will monitor food-safety procedures within its 10 beef-harvest facilities in North America.

Mike Siemens, Cargill leader of animal welfare and husbandry, said,

“The early results with our animal welfare program have been terrific and we’re excited to get all the facilities up-and-running on the program. Cargill has been able to use the RVA technology to help increase an already superior compliance rate at its plants to an even higher level. In addition to the positive results on compliance rates, we have observed healthy competition among plants on performance scores, as well as a general theme of collaboration among plants on how to attack specific operational challenges. The ability to share data and video easily is extremely valuable.”

Angie Siemens, Cargill technical services vice president for food safety and quality, said,

“We’re working to eliminate the opportunity for cross-contamination. We want to have the right steps at the beginning of our process to enhance the efficacy of our intervention technologies later in the process. The major objective of the video auditing application is to design a ground-breaking program that can further reduce the E. coli and Salmonella contamination.”

*We commit to openly sharing our knowledge with industry, government and consumers, so we can learn from them and they can learn from us, in pursuit of better food safety at every step of preparation."

Your knowledge isn’t required. Data would be more meaningful. So would warning labels of some sort, especially for at-risk populations. Florida-based supermarket Publix places all of its deli-cut meats into a plastic bag that says:??

“The Publix Deli is committed to the highest quality fresh cold cuts & cheeses.
Therefore we recommend all cold cuts are best if used within three days of purchase.
And all cheese items are best if used within four days of purchase.”

*We commit to placing public interest and consumers first, by behaving in the most responsible and transparent way possible if there is ever a breach in our food safety system.”

Is that why Maple Leaf and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency set aside epidemiology and waited for confirmatory testing in an unopened package before issuing any public warning, even though local health units had already established a link with Maple Leaf products?

Maple Leaf seems to be suffering from a common affliction that strikes many institutions in decline – they believe their own PR. Actions speak so much louder than words. From the beginning in Aug. 2008, Maple Leaf should have:

• come clean on who knew what when regarding listeria testing;

• made listeria test results public;

• provided warning labels on deli meats for at-risk populations, like pregnant women and all those old people that unnecessarily died; and,

• marketed food safety efforts at retail so consumers can choose.

Canada tells old people to cook deli meats two years after 22 died

Almost two years after 22 elderly Canadians died from eating Maple Leaf deli meats, the Canadian government has decided to remind Canadians of the importance of food safety for older adults.

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency tell older Canadians they should separate, clean, chill and cook, and make sure to cook hot dogs and deli meats until they are steaming hot before eating them.

The best the 6-figure bureaucrats who came up with this – and there were many – could do was borrow piping hot from the U.K.?

So is that standard advice now for aged-care facilities across Canada, where the staff dieticians were completely clueless about the potential for deli-meats to be contaminated with listeria? Is this Maple Leaf-sanctioned advice? Will it appear on warning labels for vulnerable populations, including pregnant women?

Communicators bungle the crisis: Tiger Woods, Maple Leaf, it’s not about the talk, it’s the actions

The Wall Street Journal and every armchair analyst out there is saying that Tiger Woods is blowing the communications thing; he’s losing credibility, and fast.

Tiger Woods’s handling of the scandal is a textbook case in poor crisis management, say crisis managers.

Days of near-silence dealt a blow to the golfer’s once squeaky-clean reputation.

"At best, it looks like he’s coming clean because he got caught," says Karen Doyne, co-leader of Burson-Marsteller’s crisis practice. "Whether you’re a celebrity or a multinational corporation, you can’t expect credit for doing the right thing as a last resort."

In a crisis, the timing of a statement is as critical as its content, she says. "The ideal in any crisis situation is to get something out within three hours, but certainly within 24 hours," she says.

The rest of the Journal story goes with the usual fare about being fast, factual and trying not to fart in public.

But good communications is never enough. With any risk, or crisis, or problem, what is required is solid assessment, management and communication. Screw up any one, and the brand or person will suffer.

Leslie Gaines-Ross, chief reputation strategist with public relations firm Weber Shandwick … points to Canadian food-maker Maple Leaf Foods Inc.’s handling of a listeria crisis in 2008 as a good model. The same day labs confirmed the listeria strain’s presence in some of its products, CEO Michael McCain shot a television ad apologizing; he also posted the ad on YouTube.

Yeah, McCain and Maple Leaf got the communications part right – but they screwed up the assessment and the management. They should have known listeria would be accumulating in those slicers and they should have managed the problem far faster as the bodies were piling up (22 died).

Maybe Tiger should have kept his 4-wood in his pants.

Food safety culture means employees don’t contaminate food with brooms or forklift tires

If a company making ready-to-eat refrigerated deli-meats has a “strong culture of food safety,” would an employee shake a broom over a line of processed product?

If more inspectors are the answer to safer food, why would the inspectors need publicly reported accounts of foodborne illness and death to try harder?

And if the company and inspectors are doing lots of tests to ensure enhanced food safety, why aren’t they bragging about it instead of requiring an Access to Information request by a media outlet to discover that inspectors continue to find problems with Maple Leaf Foods infamous Bartor Road plant in Weston, Ontario.

Last night, Steve Rennie of The Canadian Press reported that Canadian federal food safety types found a troubling lack of hygiene at Maple Leaf Foods’ Toronto facility just weeks after it reopened last year from a temporary shutdown for cleaning – after 22 people were killed and 53 sickened with listeria linked to deli meat.

A Canadian Food Inspection Agency inspection report dated Oct. 10, 2008, found:

• slime on part of the meat-trimming table in the curing room;
• meat debris on two steel container bins and unidentified debris on the brine tank in the curing room;
•a moist and mouldy cardboard sheet on the base of a skid in the curing room that holds bags of salt;
•mouldy caulking on the walls of the meat-defrosting room;
•a stack of dirty, mouldy and broken skids left in the frozen packoff room during cleaning;
• food debris on knife holders, floor and meat containers in the formulation room; and,
• rust on equipment used to process mock chicken.

The Canadian Press obtained that inspection report and others under the Access to Information Act.

Another report says during visits on Oct. 20 and 21, an inspector watched as "an employee in a grey jacket lifted a floor broom over a finished food product conveyor belt during operation to sweep in between the conveyors." (No additional information as to whether the product was packaged or not).

Then on Oct. 22, the inspector saw a worker using a forklift to move ready-to-eat link sausages from the cooler to a line for packaging. The report notes the meat at the bottom part of the lift "was not protected for the potential wheel over spray or splash cross contamination."

That part is gross. And unacceptable.

On Aug. 23, 2008, ( passim ad nauseum) Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain took to the Intertubes to apologize for an expanding outbreak of listeriosis that would eventually kill 22 people. As part of his speech, McCain said that Maple Leaf has “a strong culture of food safety.”???

On Aug. 27, 2008, McCain told a press conference, ??????“As I’ve said before, Maple Leaf Foods is 23,000 people who live in a culture of food safety. We have an unwavering commitment to keep our food safe, and we have excellent systems and processes in place.

Dr. Randy Huffman, Maple Leaf’s chief food-safety officer, took to his company’s Journey (worst band ever)-inspired Journey to Food Safety Leadership blog to say today,

“The average reader must be wondering how this plant could have so many issues only a month after re-opening from causing one of the worst food safety crises in Canada.”

I’m not sure what he means by average. I consider myself dull and below-average; does that mean I won’t be able to understand what he is saying?

Huffman: Over the past 12 -14 months- since these inspections were conducted – we have invested over $5 million in upgrades at the Bartor Road plant. This includes repair of floors and wall surfaces, air handling systems, caulking, better separation of raw and cooked areas of the plant, new pallets and new slicing and packaging equipment. We have implemented over 200 new operating procedures.

Why did it take 22 deaths and 53 illnesses to make this food safety investment?

Huffman: CFIA generates these reports and so does Maple Leaf, through our own inspections across all our plants. We welcome this government scrutiny.  Canadians hold us to a higher standard, as they should.

So why did the reports have to be obtained through an Access to Information request, and why doesn’t Maple Leaf just sidestep the government and make the reports public, along with other data, as it becomes available, to build trust with the buying consumer?

Would more inspectors have helped? Maybe if they were looking. Federal food inspection union thingy Bob Kingston said,

"In a normal operation that had not been through what they had been through, that might be a common occurrence. But in this facility, it’s very surprising that that would still be there. Because you would expect it to be spotless."

The best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants will go above and beyond minimal government and auditor standards and sell food safety solutions directly to the public. The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent — whether it’s live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website — to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.

And the best cold-cut companies may stop dancing around and tell pregnant women, old people and other immunocompromised folks, don’t eat this food unless it’s heated

Canadians can go back to sleep; Maple Leaf Foods is profitable again

Some American colleagues have said killing 22 customers with deli-meat would have led to a non-existent company. Not so in Canada, where $5.5 billion companies like Maple Leaf Foods can say with a straight face that listeria presented new challenges in the ready-to-eat food category.

Maple Leaf has been praised for its communication activities in the aftermath of the listeria outbreak last fall, but instead of taking a real leadership role they have fallen back on the tired and true – their stock went up, so everyone is happy.

Specifically, Maple Leaf has failed to provide point-of-sale warnings to at-risk populations like pregnant women and old folks, failed to publicly release listeria test data and failed to promote their food safety efforts at retail, to enhance the food safety culture back at the producer and processor level, and to build consumer confidence. A completely blown opportunity.

Well done: be aggressively mediocre. That’s how to get brownie points in Canada.