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 CEO tells Canadian consumers to do more after cold-cuts kill 22

After the Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak of 1993, the one that placed microbial food safety on American TV dinner plates, the company hired Dave Theno and developed an industry leading food safety program.

A year after Maple Leaf cold-cuts killed 22 and sickened 53 in Canada, the company announced it has launched a new web site and that consumers need to do more.

I’m not making this up.

On Friday, Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain (right, exactly as shown), on his Journey-tribute band path to food safety leadership, said,

“There’s lots we can and are doing to become a global food safety leader and it’s our job to make food as safe as possible, but there’s also lots that consumers can do to further protect themselves and their families and practice good food safety.

“This week we launched a new Maple Leaf website which is a huge leap forward in reaching consumers. Its taken us over two years in the making and it’s a great site with neat gadgets like meal planning tools, recipes, cooking and shopping tips, and most importantly food safety insights through clicking on ‘food safety at home’ at the top right of the home page. 

“I think this website is one of the coolest food sites out there, it’s interactive, informative and highlights where Maple Leaf is going as a company. We hope you will visit and welcome your feedback!!”

People that write with not one, but two, exclamation marks, are doubly desperate to get attention. It’s like double dick fingers. Dude, since you think it’s such a cool food site, and since you devoted two years of resources to this complete waste of Internet surfing, if I was a shareholder wondering where this company was going, I’d be yelling SELL, SELL, SELL!!!

(note the all CAPS and triple exclamation marks)

Companies like Jack in the Box recovered because they did the right thing – and didn’t blame consumers. Provide meaningful information to consumers, especially those at risk, like pregnant women and older folks. Make your test results public. And try not to write total bullshit like, our new website “is a huge leap forward in reaching consumers,” when you have no evidence to prove such assertions other than wine-soaked dreams at the cottage.

OK, we get it, listeria is everywhere; what are you going to do about it, Maple Leaf?

Early on in the Aug. 2008 outbreak of listeria that killed 22 Canadians, the manufacturer, Maple Leaf Foods, adopted the line that, listeria is everywhere.

CEO Micheal McCain said,

“All food plants and supermarkets have some amount of listeria.”

Yesterday, when Maple Leaf announced yet another recall of product – this time involving nine wiener products produced under the Hygrade, Shopsy’s and Maple Leaf brands produced at its plant in Hamilton, Ontario – the listeria is everywhere line was … everywhere.

Randy Huffman of Maple Leaf said in the company blog yesterday,

“Listeria is a common bacteria – it can be in virtually 100% of refrigerated food plants. It also exists at low levels in one out of every 200 ready-to-eat food products and even higher levels in many other foods we eat …

“This creates a real dilemma for us. I have to be frank with you. Nothing we can do – nothing anyone can do – will completely eliminate Listeria from the food supply. Listeria is found in about 0.5% of ready-to-eat meat and poultry products based upon best estimates from the USDA. This percentage means that one out of every 200 packages is likely to be positive. I know consumers might prefer that this number was zero, and food safety professionals certainly strive for this goal.”

I thought you were Randy, but if you’d rather be frank, sure. And this is a Canadian recall, you may want to explain what USDA is.

Both Huffman and Mansel Griffiths, professor in the food science department at the University of Guelph, invoked the consumer-wants-zero-risk although I’ve seen no evidence to back up this straw-person argument. Griffiths said,
“There’s no such thing as 100-per-cent safe foods, no matter what food we eat.”

No one asked for risk-free food; but consumers do expect that those in charge of whatever portion of the farm-to-fork food safety system take responsibility for their own actions. Me, I told the Toronto Star the risk is that the listeria contamination could have happened after processing, and people, especially kids, eat wieners out of the fridge without reheating.

Back to the issue: if listeria is everywhere, what should processors and retailers do about it?

• Warning labels. Pregnant women and other at-risk populations should be informed of listeria risks, using a variety of messages and a variety of media. The 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”

• Make listeria testing data public.

• Market food safety efforts at retail.

Because listeria is everywhere.

U.K. targets listeria risk in old people – when will Canada?

I got an e-mail from the vice-president of communications for Maple Leaf Foods on Saturday afternoon.

She was sending me a blog that her boss, Michael McCain wrote, about his new knowledge of listeria and the role of food safety inspectors.

I figure she’s making at least $150,000 to do her vp communicating, so, even though I was a dick, I felt OK responding,

“Thanks for forwarding this in a timely manner. I blogged about it yesterday.”

It was about 24 hours earlier.

And while McCain and Maple Leaf go about enhancing their communications reputations, even the mother country, land of the cook-your-turkey-till-it’s-piping-hot advice, has decided listeria is a problem, maybe we can’t rely on manufacturers, maybe listeria is everywhere like Michael McCain says, so maybe we better tell old people they could be at risk.

The U.K. Food Standards Agency commissioned a bunch of research and figured out that people over the age of 60 are more likely to take risks with ‘use by’ dates than younger people and that eating food like cold-cuts beyond its ‘use by’ date increases the risk of food poisoning from listeria.

A recent sharp rise in the number of people taken ill with listeria has seen more older people affected. The number of cases rose by 20% in 2007 and has doubled since 2000, this increase occurring predominantly among people over 60.

The number of cases of listeria in people over 60 years of age has doubled in the past nine years. And one in three of the people who get food poisoning caused by listeria die as a result.

Listeria is a type of food poisoning bacteria that can live and grow in a wide range of food – chilled ready-to-eat food in particular – for example pâté, cooked sliced meats, certain soft cheeses and smoked fish.

Dr Andrew Wadge, Chief Scientist at the FSA, said,

The rise in listeria food poisoning among older people is worrying. Listeria can make people very ill, and 95% of cases end up needing treatment in hospital.

‘There are some really simple steps people can take to prevent getting ill in the first place: be aware that ‘use by’ dates indicate how long food will remain safe, and then make sure you stick to them; always follow the storage instructions on the label; and make sure your fridge is cold enough – between 0°C and 5°C is ideal.

‘These are the three messages that our new campaign is focusing on and Food Safety Week is a good time to be raising awareness of them."

VP communications thingy: stop sending me e-mails that you or any of your underlings – and I know how many people at Maple Leaf subscribe to and – know was repetition and maybe work on an information strategy so that the genius dieticians in Canadian old-folks homes stop serving unheated cold-cuts to their patients. That’s how 22 people died last year.

More testing, not inspectors may have prevented listeria says McCain; will test results be made public?

Micahel McCain, the president of Maple Leaf Foods, was correct yesterday when he told a Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce event that adding more food inspectors to the plant floor would not have made a difference in preventing last August’s listeria outbreak at one of its Toronto plants that caused 22 deaths.

"What is very important to recognize about bacteria is that you cannot see it. We wish you could visually inspect for bacteria, but it can’t be seen with the eyes, tasted or touched."

The head of the $5.2-billion-a-year Toronto-based food giant was adamant that more testing was the only effective way to address the issue and that Maple Leaf has doubled the number of tests being undertaken.

Thank you for that lesson in microbiology, Mr. McCain. Yes, the inspectors’ union in Canada has been shamelessly exploiting the deaths of 22 people to get more shifts for its workers. Good of you to call them on it.

Now to the harder questions, which McCain continues to avoid.

Why didn’t Maple Leaf do more extensive testing prior to the outbreak? It’s not like there haven’t been listeria outbreaks in ready-to-eat refrigerated foods like cold cuts before.

Why won’t Maple Leaf make all of its listeria test results public, especially since it wants to build consumer confidence.

Will Maple Leaf put warning labels on its cold cuts to advise pregnant women and older folks that such products shouldn’t be eaten raw?

And to all the dieticians running the menus at the elderly folks homes where the 22 people died: what were you thinking serving cold cuts? How hard is it to heat a sandwich? Have any of you had any decent food safety training?

Canadian politicians beware: Maple Leaf’s Michael McCain isn’t really that into you

He may ooze empathy and smooth, but Canadian politicians on the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Agri-Food’s Subcommittee on Food Safety beware: Michael McCain (below, not exactly as shown) really isn’t that into you.

Sure he got dressed up for the committee appearance last night, prefaced it with a little foreplay at a luncheon for business types, and said I’m sorry, it was all me, but when a guy says that, he really means, it’s all you.

McCain just wants to get into your pants, or pants pockets, in the form of public tax dollars for inspections to ensure a future food safety façade so the profits at Maple Leaf Foods won’t be further inconvenienced by death and illness from deli meats.

McCain of Maple Leaf Foods has become the latest corporate type to ask for government help in the form of increased inspection. The dude from Kellogg’s did the same thing in the U.S., as did the growers of lettuce and spinach in California, and tomatoes in Florida. They all said the same thing: we can’t figure out how to provide a safe product while sucking in profits, so government, please, do it for us (that way, when there is an outbreak, we can at least say we met enhanced government standards). If anyone wants to know why government at best sets a minimal standard, read the testimony of Carole Swan, President of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Dr. Brian Evans, Executive Vice-President of CFIA.

All of this is tragically embarrassing.

And this ain’t rocket surgery.

Opposition MPs praised McCain for taking responsibility for the tragedy and questioned whether the government should do more to accept part of the blame.

No. Stop being taken in by the fabulously handsome McCain. The best food producers and processors will go far beyond government standards to provide a safe product; they make the profit; they should make it safe. They should brag about it.

McCain told business leaders earlier on Monday, perhaps after a lunch of liquor and delicious deli meats, that the food industry "has to raise its game" because it doesn’t take food safety seriously enough.

“This industry has to raise its game. It has to take food safety more seriously, it has to invest more in food safety, and it has to improve its record of delivering safe food to consumers."

Wow. Sixteen years after Jack-in-the-Box and McCain and his $5.5 billion a year company discovers food safety after killing 21 people. He also felt it necessary to lecture parliamentarians and others that ‘poke and sniff’ methods of inspection were outdated. That rhetoric is at least 20-30 years outdated.

You know (a listener said my overuse of ‘you know’ on a Baltimore phone-in show yesterday was appalling and that as a professor lecturing to ‘glasses’ I should know better; I told him I had a voice for print and he should watch his spelling) Amy and I need people to help out with baby Sorenne. I’m not sure we need a village, but babysitters and friends are handy a few hours a week so we can slog through some work. Or shower. Sorenne is 4-months-old.

I’m somewhat baffled, however, when the so-called leaders of multi-billion dollar corporations or producer groups ask for babysitters in the form of government inspectors. Are your managers 4-month-olds that need someone to play ga-ga with? Help to get in their walker?

Canadian parliamentarians, stop being swooned by this guy. NDP MP Malcolm Allen said, “The only way you can get trust back with the public is through third-party verification.”

Apparently the star-struck Mr. Allen, thinking he was asking a tough question, showed himself as the star-struck girlfriend, who knows nothing about food safety, like the shitfest of third-party (non)verification at the Peanut Corporation of America plant which led to nine dead and 600 sick from Salmonella.

Here’s what is appalling about all this: no one, or at least me, expects anything but the bare minimum from government. The CFIA types can say they’re sorry all day, they’ll still have jobs and still go off for six-months of French lessons to move up in the Canadian government bureaucracy.

Michael McCain (above, exactly as shown), who runs that $5.5. billion a year company manufacturing products identified for decades at high risk of listeria, could stick with, yeah, we screwed up, we should have learned from all these past listeria outbreaks, we should have paid attention to the positive test results sitting in our filing cabinets, we’re sorry.

As Steve Martin once said, ‘But Noooooooooooo.’

Instead, McCain makes a big deal out of hiring a food safety dude after the fact, and lectures the rest of the industry and the country on what should be done; instead it’s like dating the worst kind of reformed smoker or born-again addict preaching to everyone else: forget minimal government regulations, forget the preaching, sell safe food. Listeria didn’t just come along 10, 20, 30 years ago, or yesterday, as you would have Canadians believe.

McCain, take care of your own shop, the one that happily makes money. Then maybe we can talk about another date.

Until then, I’m just not that into you.

Maple Leaf discovers food safety – too late

During the Bite Me ’09 road trip, a very prominent food safety colleague told a very public audience that he wasn’t so impressed when a company hired a chief food safety dude after the poop had hit the fan.

Me thinks he was talking about Maple Leaf Foods, a Canadian company doing $5.5 billion a year in sales that decided it needed a chief food safety officer after killing 21 people with its listeria-laden deli meats last fall.

On March 25, 2009, Maple Leaf announced it was launching an external company blog at The first posting, "The Journey to Food Safety Leadership," is a letter written by President and CEO, Michael McCain.

Anything mentioning Journey should be banned. So many times while flipping the radio during the Bite Me ’09 3600-mile roadtrip, a Journey song would come on. And they’re on some new ad. Horrible, horrible music.

So it’s apt that Maple Leaf Foods chose a Journey to food safety because like the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team, they are all aggressively mediocre.

The letter from McCain is not a blog post: it’s a missive that needs some serious editing for brevity. There’s been a couple of other posts that run the gamut from boring to pedantic. My group has written a paper on what makes a good blog post. McCain may want to check it out.

McCain and his food safety hire, Randy Huffman, are apparently touring the editorial boards of the remaining newspapers in Canada as a prelude to parliamentary hearings that begin next week on the future of Canada’s food safety system.

“We are going to be advocating more regulation, not less. More-stringent protocols, not less-stringent protocols. We’re going to be advocating more transparency and a stronger role for government, not a reduced role.”

Of course they are. Just like leafy green growers and the dude from Kellogg’s. Isn’t it embarrassing when industry – the ones who make a profit – says, we can’t do this ourselves, we need a babysitter.?

He (McCain) was accompanied by the company’s new chief food safety officer, Randy Huffman, whose appointment and position are being touted as evidence of Maple Leaf’s responsiveness to the crisis.

I’ll defer to my very prominent food safety colleague.

McCain also told the Globe and Mail this morning,

“We have to be candid and open and honest to the Canadian public, as does the industry and government. In the world of food safety we can do the very best job we can, but zero risk is not achievable based on what we know today.”

Dude, I co-wrote a book called Mad Cows and Mother’s Milk back in 1997 that said zero-risk was unachievable and consumers actually don’t want that. They just want to know that whoever is in charge is doing what can be reasonably expected to reduce risk. Twelve years later and McCain feels it necessary to lecture the Canadian public about this stuf? Had McCain really never heard about the 1998 outbreak of listeria associated with Sara Lee hot dogs?

Back to the questions the Globe editorial board apparently forgot to ask while fawning over McCain: should Maple Leaf products contain warning labels for pregnant women and old folks; why aren’t Maple Leaf listeria results publicly available; and who knew what when in the days leading up to the Aug. 2008 recall?

Listeria la bamba

The beat goes on.

Brian Evans, executive vice-president of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, wrote in the Globe and Mail this morning that the only part of a July 24 meeting between officials from Maple Leaf Foods and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency that concerned listeria centred around consistency between Canada’s approach to import testing and monitoring, and that of other countries.

Michael McCain of Maple Leaf said the same thing in a March 4, 2009, press release,

"While we welcome open discussion of the outbreak in any and all reviews to ensure appropriate lessons are drawn from this tragedy, we take the strongest possible exception to any inference that we withheld information from the public."

As I said March 4, those explanations are probably true.

But CFIA and Maple Leaf  — especially Maple Leaf if it’s the world-class thingy it claims to be – need to publicly state, for the record, who knew what when, instead of continuous damage control every time someone asks a question.

Evans also writes today that,

These consultations had nothing to do with the listeria outbreak that was brought to light several weeks later and to which the agency responded quickly and professionally.

No one can judge whether the agency responded quickly and professionally because a detailed timeline of who knew what when is simply not available. If McCain really valued “open discussion of the outbreak” they would publicize their own listeria test results leading up to the public recall in an outbreak that killed 20.

Bamba bamba.

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.

U.S. Congressional questions better than Canadian food safety silence

Elizabeth Payne, of the Ottawa Citizen’s editorial board, writes that when the president of Peanut Corp. of America was hauled in front of a congressional hearing in Washington last week, Canadians should have been paying attention.

And cringing.

Few things have underlined the gap in the way our two countries approach food safety like the sight of company president Stewart Parnell sitting with arms folded while a congressman, in a theatrical flourish, offered him some of his company’s tainted peanut products. Mr. Parnell’s company is at the centre of a salmonella outbreak that has sickened 600 people and may have killed eight in recent months.

On this side of the border, Michael McCain of Maple Leaf Foods was named Business News Maker of the Year — a year in which his company was found to be the source of a listeriosis outbreak linked to 20 deaths and hundreds of illnesses. To be fair, Mr. McCain took responsibility in a way that Peanut Corp. executives did not. He deserved recognition for his compassion and efforts to reassure a rattled public that it was safe to go back to the deli counter.

But that should not be the end of the story. The aggressive effort in the U.S. to quickly get questions answered about the tainted peanut outbreak there is instructive.

Payne goes on to say that already Americans know more about the mechanics and timeline of this salmonella outbreak than Canadians do about the gaps and failures than may have exacerbated the listeriosis outbreak.

Nearly seven months later, Canadians still don’t know exactly who knew what when. There have been no answers to the crucial question of whether a quicker response could have saved lives and how a similar tragedy could be prevented or contained sooner. Until we know that, nothing has been learned from the 20 deaths. Instead of answers, we got a PR campaign, tasteless cold-cut jokes and a toothless and too-late investigation into what happened.