Listeria redux: Maple Leaf to cut 400 jobs

I killed two people in a car accident when I was 18-years-old. I went to jail. It’s all on the Intertubes.

20080827bg_leaf07.JPGBut I’ve never hid from it.

Seven years after his cold-cuts killed 23 people and sickened 55 with Listeria, Maple Leaf president Michael McCain now says, it’s all about the money.

Fair comment: food is a low-margins-high-turnover kind of biz.

But to ignore the food safety aspects when your company has monumentally messed up is beyond belief.

Or just another day at the office.

Maple Leaf Foods Inc said on Wednesday it would cut 400 management jobs, or about 3 per cent of its work force, saying it was ready to streamline operations after starting up Canada’s biggest meat plant.

Nearly half of the positions are based in the Mississauga head office, said spokesman Dave Bauer. Sixty-four are based at the new Hamilton, meat plant, where analysts noted excess staff and supervisors during a recent tour, and the rest of the job cuts are scattered across Canada.

Senior management, led by chief executive officer Michael McCain, remains intact, Bauer said.

“After years of change and transformation, we’re now in a position to streamline the organization so we can operate as efficiently as possible,” Bauer said.

Does that include food safety?


Dogma over data is dumb: food safety myths strong in Canada

Canada has the best health care system in the world.

And really clean water.

And really safe food.

And a lot of delusional people who apparently think repetition rather than data makes something true.

This week was particularly strong for some food safety nosestretchers in the wake of comments make by supermarket mogul Galen Weston Jr. that food at farmer’s markets were going to kill someone someday.

First up, Sylvain Charlebois, acting dean and professor at the University of Guelph’s College of Management and Economics, who wrote in a widely circulated op-ed that,

“The 2003 mad cow crisis in Canada was really the first major food safety-related event our country had experienced.”

In 1998, 805 Canadians, primarily children between 6- and 10-years-old, were sickened with Salmonella Enteriditis linked to Schneiders Lunchmates. That really was a major food safety event. So was E. coli O157:H7 in the water supply of Walkerton, Ontario in 2000, which killed 7 and sickened 2,500 in a town of 5,000.

Maybe not enough dead people?

In 1985, 19 of 55 affected people at a London, Ontario nursing home (that’s in Canada) died after eating sandwiches apparently infected with E. coli O157. A subsequent inquest into the outbreak yielded numerous stories about the “obscure but deadly bacterium, E. coli O157.” On Oct. 12, 1985, in response to the on-going inquest, the Ontario government announced a training program for food-handlers in health-care institutions, “stressing cleaning and sanitizing procedures and hygienic practices in food preparation.”

The 648 sickened from salmonella in sprouts in Ontario in 2005 would also count as a major outbreak.

Next, Roger George, a retired farmer, a former provincial and national farm leader and the author of the 2002 Agricultural Odyssey Report, writes in the North Bay Nipissing that,

“The Canadian food supply at all levels is among the safest and the most regulated in the world.”

Or as Rick Holley of the University of Manitoba says, “The food safety system in Canada is on the upper end of being mediocre."??

Back to AD Charlebois.

“We also need to celebrate our successes in food safety. The mere fact that the 2008 Maple Leaf listeria outbreak was discovered early is an achievement in itself.”

Government and industry types said much of the same during the outbreak. It’s nonsense. As revealed in numerous journalistic and government inquiries, the feds were slow and silent in releasing information about the pending listeria death-storm. Nursing homes were ordered to stop serving the cold-cuts five days before Canadians were told the same thing.

Rob Cribb of the Toronto star wrote, “at virtually every stage of the outbreak, it seems things could have – should have – gone differently in a food safety system repeatedly hailed by government officials as ‘one of the safest in the world."?’?

Roger George:

“What has to be avoided in the food industry is scenarios like the over reaction after Walkerton which seems to have no boundaries around public cost and regulation. Human negligence was the root cause of that tragedy, and human error is a daily risk in every processing plant, restaurant, supermarket and farm. Oh yes, the greatest risk of all, in your kitchen and mine.”

When seven people die and 2,500 are sickened by a preventable bug, I’m not sure when something would be classified as an over-reaction. But repeating dogma like the home kitchen is the greatest food safety risk is just more repetition in the absence of data – and ignorance of the causes and complexities of food- or waterborne outbreaks.


“And the Maple Leaf affair allowed us to educate ourselves on what was then considered a relatively unknown pathogen.”

Beginning August 2, 1998, over 80 Americans fell ill, 15 were killed, and at least six women miscarried due to listerosis linked to Listeria monocytogenes bacteria with a unique genetic code. On Dec. 19, 1998, the outbreak strain was found in an open package of hot dogs partially consumed by a victim. The manufacturer of the hot dogs, Sara Lee subsidiary Bil Mar Foods, Inc., quickly issued a recall of what would become 35 million pounds of hot dogs and other packaged meats produced at the company’s only plant in Michigan. By Christmas, testing of unopened packages of hot dogs from Bil Mar detected the same genetically unique L. monocytegenes bacteria, and production at the plant was halted.

The dangers of listeria have been known for decades. Charlebois shares the same delusion repeatedly projected by Michael McCain that listeria was an unknown risk in refrigerated ready-to-eat foods like deli meats.

The real danger is Canadian acquiescence to dogma in the absence of data.

Food safety culture more fashion than fact for posers

On Aug. 23, 2008, 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.”

As laid bare in the Weatherill report on the 2008 listeria shit-fest, McCain’s invocation of food safety culture was as credible as the politicians and bureaucrats who lauded the workings of Canada’s food safety surveillance system, when it didn’t actually work at all.

Andre Picard, the long-time health reporter for Toronto’s Globe and Mail, picked up on this theme today when he wrote,

“the root of the listeriosis outbreak in Canada in 2008 was not two dirty meat slicers but rather a culture – in government and private enterprise alike – in which food safety was not a priority but an afterthought.”

Picard says Ms. Weatherill’s most important recommendation – one that has been largely glossed over in media coverage of the report – is for a culture of safety or, as is stated bluntly in the report: “Actions, not words.”

Really, Canada, this is nothing new. There is a long history in developed countries of negligence, followed by remorse, promises to do better and … minimal changes. Didn’t Canada go through all this after E. coli O157:H7 entered the municipal water supply in Walkerton, Ontario in 2000, killing 7 and sickening 2,500 in a town of 5,000?

In 1985, 19 of 55 affected people at a London, Ontario, nursing home died after eating sandwiches infected with E. coli O157:H7.  On Oct. 12, 1985, in response to an inquest, the Ontario government announced a training program for food-handlers in health-care institutions, “stressing cleaning and sanitizing procedures and hygienic practices in food preparation.” That training apparently didn’t include the food safety basic – don’t give unheated cold cuts to vulnerable populations, like old people, ‘cause they may die from listeria.

These days, food safety culture is the buzz. The same recommendation – to embrace and enhance food safety culture —  was embraced by the U.K. Food Standards Agency last week following an inquiry into the death of 5-year-old Mason Jones and the illness of 160 other schoolchildren who consumed E. coli O157:H7 contaminated cold cuts in Wales in 2005.

Sixteen years after E. coli O157:H7 killed four and sickened hundreds who ate hamburgers at the Jack-in-the-Box chain, the challenge remains: how to get people to take food safety seriously? ??????Lots of companies do take food safety seriously and the bulk of Western meals are microbiologically safe. But recent food safety failures have been so extravagant, so insidious and so continual that consumers must feel betrayed.??????

Culture encompasses the shared values, mores, customary practices, inherited traditions, and prevailing habits of communities. The culture of today’s food system (including its farms, food processing facilities, domestic and international distribution channels, retail outlets, restaurants, and domestic kitchens) is saturated with information but short on behavioral-change insights. Creating a culture of food safety requires application of the best science with the best management and communication systems, including compelling, rapid, relevant, reliable and repeated, multi-linguistic and culturally-sensitive messages.

Frank Yiannas, the vice-president of food safety at Wal-Mart writes in his 2008 book, Food Safety Culture: Creating a Behavior-based Food Safety Management System, that an organization’s food safety systems need to be an integral part of its culture.

The other guru of food safety culture, Chris Griffith of the University of Wales, features prominently in the report by Professor Hugh Pennington into the 2005 E.coli outbreak in Wales.

I’ve maintained for 16 years that, despite high-profile outbreaks and unacceptable loss of life, food safety in Canada is, as Weatherill stated, an afterthought.

Forget government. Michael McCain, you want to be a leader, lead, don’t just talk about it by throwing around words like food safety culture because they are suddenly fashionable.

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.

Weatherill says, action not words.

Canadian bureaucrats won’t talk, so politicians demand full inquiry into Listeria outbreak; rendition of remorse was a little late

The Canadian politicians investigating last year’s listeria outbreak that killed 22 were so frustrated by the lack of information from the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the Public Health Agency of Canada they have demanded a full public inquiry.

The Globe and Mail reports this morning that a report to be released Thursday will conclude that the two-month parliamentary study was unable to gather enough evidence to get to the bottom of the outbreak. The call for a public inquiry represents a rebuke to the government’s own investigation into the issue led by Sheila Weatherill, who will release a report this summer.

The committee report will also call for an overhaul of the Public Health Agency of Canada so that it becomes more of an independent health watchdog. The committee further recommends that inspection reports at food processing plants be released to the public.

And since CFIA and others are stonewalling, what with their “we went public when we had hard scientific proof” and epidemiology-is –for-wusses line, we’ve put together a timeline that should help the investigators in their, uh, investigation.

Chronology of testing events prior to the August 17, 2008 public alert of possible contamination of Maple Leaf Foods’ deli meats by L. monocytogenes

Date Event
May 2008 Initial detection of Listeria spp. in environmental tests by Maple Leaf Foods
June 2008 Initial detection of small increases of reported cases of listeriosis in Ontario by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care
July 21, 2008 Acquisition of food samples acquired from Toronto long-term care home for testing
August 4, 2008 Detection of L. monocytogenes in opened packages of deli meat from the home
August 13, 2008 Confirmation of genetic similarities between the L. monocytogenes bacteria found in the deli meats and in ill individuals through DNA fingerprinting
August 16, 2008 Detection of Listeria spp. in an unopened packed of Maple Leaf Foods deli meat

And it took the Public Health Agency of Canada until Aug. 23, 2008, before they made a definitive link and then Michael McCain of Maple Leaf Foods went on his award-winning rendition of remorse.


Death by cold-cuts? Canadian Ag Minister not as funny as he thinks he is

Michael McCain, the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods made a strategic decision once his company decided to handle the growing listeria mess in Canada by saying this wasn’t about government, it was about his company: he effectively cut himself loose from bizarre to self-congratulatory to purely political messages from government and bureaucrats.

That decision looks real smart tonight. is reporting that during a conference call with scientists, bureaucrats and political staff on Aug. 30, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said, after fretting about the political dangers of the Listeria scare, he quipped:

"This is like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts."

Then when told of a death in Prince Edward Island, Ritz said, "Please tell me it’s (Liberal MP) Wayne Easter."

Easter is the Liberal agriculture critic and has called for Ritz’s resignation over his handling of the outbreak, which was linked to a Maple Leaf Foods meat processing plant north of Toronto.

Kory Teneycke, a spokesperson for the Prime Minister’s Office, said Ritz expressed regret over his remarks to Stephen Harper but there was no suggestion of resigning.

Ritz said,

"My comments were tasteless and completely inappropriate. I apologize unreservedly."

Canoe news reports that Ritz was "less contrite when he was asked about his comments after his flight from Saskatoon touched down at the Ottawa airport Wednesday afternoon".

A bearded man with Ritz jostled with journalists as the agriculture minister beelined through the terminal to a waiting sedan. At one point the man grabbed a reporter’s recorder and jabbed at the off button.

For two minutes Ritz stared dead ahead as he was peppered with questions about the conference call. His only words were clipped.

"Not right now, guys," he said.

Then: "Get out of my face, please."

McCain apologizes for Maple Leaf listeria; excellent risk communication, will the management of the risk stand scrutiny?

If your products kill and sicken people, it’s a good idea to say sorry. Many people think that saying sorry is an admission of guilt and will be used in court. Lawyer Bill Marler says that is not the case. To me, saying sorry is an expression of empathy. It’s a basic human response.

Michael McCain, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, took not only to the airwaves but to the Intertubes to convey his empathy and resolve at fixing the listeria situation. It’s an excellent piece of risk communication.

But communicating effectively about risks like listeria is never enough. Eventually, journalists and juries will start asking some tough questions about who knew what when. 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.

This is a tough situation that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. Oh, and the critics who say that food produced locally would result in fewer illnesses are statistically challenged: to make a fair comparison between small and big producers, the number of illnesses per meals consumed is the true measure, and no one has offered that up; further, outbreaks involving local producers may never get picked up by the surveillance system.; and the big folks have the resources to invest in food safety. McCain says Maple Leaf has a culture of food safety. Maybe. The evidence will be laid out over the weeks and months to come.

 If you go to the youtube post, you can see the comments, which already include,

“I just had further look at your recent earnings for the last quarter….if you are truly sorry, the families of those who lost loved ones should never have to work another day in their life. Whether you pay the victim’s families the millions of dollars that you can afford or not will tell if you are truly sorry.”

There will be more harsh words. McCain and Maple Leaf deserve praise for their risk communication efforts: how the risk was managed – who knew what when and what actions were taken – remains to be seen.