What’s it worth to barf? Not much in Canada

Chapman and I have thrown around the idea that one of the reasons Canadians seem complacent about foodborne illness – despite several high-profile devastating outbreaks – is the availability of public health care. If someone loses a kidney because of E. coli O157:H7 or a liver because of hepatitis A, the cost is borne by the system. In the U.S. those without health care coverage would be out $100,000 – at a minimum. So Canadian lawsuits are kept to a minimum, media coverage remains stagnant, and everyone goes back to sleep.

As Jim Romahn wrote in Dec. after a $27 million settlement for victims in the Maple Leaf listeria outbreak that killed 20 and sickened hundreds was announced, CEO Michael H. McCain is a wily strategist.

For $27 million, tops, he has bought freedom from a court case that could have proven highly embarrassing to Maple Leaf. The ongoing coverage could well have become the final nail in consumer confidence in Maple Leaf products. The lawyers were sure to ask who knew what and when. They were sure to ask about the degree of plant contamination as the company continued to ship products, failing to first hold them for testing and clearance.

What does that $27 million buy?

• Someone who was ill for up to 48 hours would receive $750

• Up to a week receives $3,000

•Up to two weeks receives $5,500

• Up to a month receives $8,000

• If listeriosis led to a secondary infection that didn’t cause ongoing symptoms, such as meningitis or pneumonia, the settlement is $35,000

• If listeriosis caused sustained or permanent symptoms, the settlement is $75,000 plus $750 for each day of hospitalization

• If secondary complications affected the nervous system and caused “serious and permanent impairment of physical and/or mental function,” payment is $125,000 plus $750 for each day of hospitalization. A family member who was affected psychologically could receive $10,000.

• A death would lead to a $120,000 payment to the victim’s estate. A spouse would be eligible for an additional $35,000, while children could receive $30,000, parents could receive $20,000 and siblings or grandchildren could receive $5,000. Funeral expenses up to $13,500 would also be covered.

• Anyone who “sustained psychological injuries or trauma for up to 60 days” after eating tainted meat, without any injuries, could receive up to $4,000.

• Anyone who was at particular risk, such as pregnant women and the elderly, but did not become ill could receive up to $6,000 for psychological trauma that lasted up to 60 days.

• If psychological symptoms lasted more than 60 days, compensation is set at $13,500.

• Those in the vulnerable group who experienced psychological symptoms for more than 60 days could receive $17,500.

Canadian listeria coverage still sucks

Daughter Braunwynn returned to Ontario last night after a great visit.

Her super-sweet 16 is less than two weeks away, so during lunch on Sunday with Amy and Sorenne and Bob, we asked what she might be studying at university (not a fair question cause I still don’t know what I want to do when I grow up).

She mentioned science, psychology, maybe journalism – she liked writing.

Amy and I sorta jumped, saying that if she wanted to write, then write, and that maybe J-school wasn’t the best place to learn writing.

I teach a journalism class on food safety reporting, but there’s not much to teach: writers write, and just like scientists, they need to ask the right questions.

Braunwynn, the 15-year-old, gets it; Canadian journalists covering Michael McCain, Maple Leaf and listeria? Not so much.

There are exceptions, like Rob Cribb at the Star, but a couple of holiday puff pieces stood out. On Jan. 4, 2009, the Canadian Press correctly noted that the Canadian government has not yet named the leader of a promised probe into the listeriosis outbreak that killed 20 people — a lag critics say discredits an already suspect process.

But then they go on to excessively quote the union dude who thinks that inspectors with beer-like listeria googles are the solution. He represents the food inspectors union. Of course he wants more inspectors. As new NC State professorial thingy Ben wrote, more inspectors is not the answer.

Then there’s the researchers. They always want more research. And new technology. Oh, and to blame consumers. Because you know, consumers are the weak link when it comes to ready-to-eat deli meats. And when the researcher making such public proclamations is an advisor to Maple Leaf, that should be disclosed. Journalism 101. I’m sure glad my previously pregnant wife didn’t rely on your expert advice.

Bert Mitchell had it right the other day when he wrote that while Michael McCain has been gathering year–end goodwill for his handling of the Maple Leaf  listeria outbreak, “it is too early for applause. Effective long term solutions have not been put in place.”

For the budding journalists, there are still basic questions to be answered, questions that have nothing to do with more research, more inspectors, a public inquiry or any other narrow special interest, but questions that may help prevent any future unnecessary deaths of 20 people and  unnecessary illness of hundreds if not thousands of people:

• who knew what when;

• why aren’t listeria test results publically available; and,

• if listeria is everywhere, why aren’t there warnings for vulnerable populations?

Bert Mitchell: Canadian listeria controls lacking

Bert Mitchell saw jim Romahn’s Dec. 22/08 piece about listeria and Maple Leaf Foods in FSnet and barfblog.com, and decided he had to write.

Dr. Mitchell’s no lightweight. Among other achievements, he was Director of the Bureau of Veterinary Drugs at Health Canada from 1982-1988,an associate director at the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Veterinary Medicine from 1988-2001, and the current president of the American Association of Retired Veterinarians.

Bert says:

I want to congratulate and encourage Jim Romahn for his article Maple Leaf, Michael McCain, and Unanswered Questions. I read his article on the FSnet list serve webpage. I do not claim to be an expert in the microbiology of Listeria or manufacturing procedures to avoid it but I do want to encourage Jim, and others in his profession, because the picture of cause and control in this Maple Leaf case is incomplete.

While Michael McCain seems to be gathering year–end goodwill for his handling of the Listeria contamination in the Maple Leaf plant, I think it is too early for applause. Effective long term solutions have not been put in place.

Jim is on-point in arguing for better health protection in Canada. He is helping expose a glaring lack of complete information that should be readily available from Health Canada, CFIA, or Maple Leaf Foods about the source and spread of the Listeria found in sliced meat cold cuts that killed 20 Canadians and sickened many others. Specifically, he is spotlighting the continuing lack of the better labeling and improved manufacturing procedures needed to protect elderly, immune weakened, and pregnant persons. This example of poor health protection in Canada has been seen before. Listeriosis in people has occurred previously in Canada and because of regulatory inaction, it can happen again.

Listeria in cold cuts is a health threat that continues to exist in Canada. The recent hype from Maple Leaf in advertising the end of Listeria risk is just talk without support. If the company or the federal bureaucracy have evidence that labeling and manufacturing procedure changes are unnecessary, they should publish the evidence for the public to see.

As a result of inadequate labeling/manufacturing regulations, inadequate enforcement, and excessive collegiality between the federal bureaucrat and the industry it regulates, the Listeria public health threat continues to exist in Canada. About 10 years ago, the U.S. found Listeria in wieners. They changed labeling and required a post packaging cooking step. These changes appear to be the reason for no Listeria in U.S. cold cuts. For these 10 years, an apparently effective regulatory example has been on paper and worked effectively in practice to prevent Listeria in cold cuts in the U.S. The evidence of need for better Canadian labeling and manufacturing procedures for cold cuts seems obvious. What am I missing in this seemingly black-white image?

Investigative journalism is an important factor in uncovering the stinking wet spots that can exist within big bureaucracies and industries. Investigative reporting is particularly important in instances in which the public is indifferent to the issue or prefers to believe that the government can be trusted to always do what is right. Everyone has a responsibility to be vigilant about government action and inaction.

The investigative journalist reviews the evidence, thinks about alternatives, asks questions, and writes articles. In this case they write articles about why Canadians have died unnecessarily. Investigative journalism is a critically important element in effecting change. Jim Romahn has the right line of questions. He deserves nomination for yet another journalistic award.

In Canada, the labeling and manufacturing controls needed to control Listeria in cold cuts are not in place. Just as Canadians experienced no outbreak of Listeria for a decade, there may be none for years to come. What we do know is that the 2008 Listeria outbreak in Canada has not motivated sufficient change to prevent another outbreak and more unnecessary deaths. It is this flaw that Jim Romahn is addressing and the investigation I applaud.

Jim Romahn: Maple Leaf, Michael McCain and unanswered questions

Canadian reporter Jim Romahn writes:

Michael H. McCain is a wily strategist.

First, as president and chief executive officer of Maple Leaf Foods Inc., he made a big deal of dismissing advice from the company’s lawyers and accountants to not admit any liability for Canada’s most notorious case of food poisoning last summer.

He won praise from business reporters and public relations consultants for that.

In fact, the spin doctors had much more to say about that than the failure to safeguard consumers of Maple Leaf deli meats.

Now McCain has pulled an even better trick.

He has claimed the high moral ground in settling class-action lawsuits.

For $27 million, tops, he has bought freedom from a court case that could have proven highly embarrassing to Maple Leaf.

The ongoing coverage could well have become the final nail in consumer confidence in Maple Leaf products.

The lawyers were sure to ask who knew what and when.

They were sure to ask about the degree of plant contamination as the company continued to ship products, failing to first hold them for testing and clearance.

That, of course, is what’s being done now.

The lawyers will trot out evidence that more than half of the samples – one each from different batches or products – collected by municipal health units across Ontario contained Listeria monocytogenes.

The lawyers would no doubt challenge McCain’s claim that Listeria are so common in food-processing plants that it’s challenging at the best of times to eliminate them. They might have conceded that to be true of listeria in general, but would ask how Maple Leaf handled the more dangerous strain that showed up at the Bartor Road plant in Toronto.

The lawyers will ask why Maple Leaf ignored Health Canada warnings that cold cuts should not be served to people with weak immune systems – i.e. the elderly, infants and young children, pregnant women and those under medical treatment to suppress their immune systems.

Why do Maple Leaf’s cold cuts fail to warn these people about Health Canada’s advice? Of course, the same could be said of the labels on any Canadian-made cold cuts. Buyer beware!

The last place Canadians can turn to for answers to these questions is the inquiry Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised in the heated exchanges of an election campaign as the Listeria crisis continued.

I notice that Harper did not promise a PUBLIC inquiry.

He has not named a person or panel to head an inquiry.

He has not promised to reveal a report of an inquiry or its recommendations.

I’m certain the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and Maple Leaf will be lobbying hard for Harper and his government to forget the promise of an inquiry. And, failing that to “contain the damage,” as the public relations are wont to advise.

So two goals scored by McCain so far. Will he make it a hat trick.

I sincerely hope not, but given Canada’s record on food safety in the food business, I’m far from optimistic.

Or as The Kids in the Hall asked, Who’s to Blame?

Maple Leaf’s textbook video skips the hard questions

The most effective risk communication is also the most personal.

It’s about walking the talk.

Michael McCain, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods in Canada knows this, but just can’t quite pull it off.

McCain has personalized the message, taking responsibility for his deli meats that killed 20 people, but he can’t quite close the deal.

Below is a new video released today to, I guess, reassure Canadians.

From the beginning, I’ve asked some basic questions:

• who knew what when;

• why won’t Maple Leaf make their listeria test results public; and,

• what is Maple Leaf Food’s advice to those folks vulnerable to listeria.

Mr. McCain, you’ve got some high profile science advisors now. Would they recommend that their pregnant daughters eat any cold cuts? Would you tell old folks homes not to serve unheated deli meats to their clients? Will you make listeria testing public? And will you provide a full accounting of listeria tests and actions in the weeks leading up to the recall of Aug. 17, 2008. Does epidemiology matter?

So many questions, none of which are answered in your video.

Listeria, mommies and me

Amy’s first meal after returning home with baby Sorenne? A snack spread of soft goat cheese with bite-sized pate and beet sandwiches, something I picked up from my Danish mentor, John Kierkegaard, back when I worked as a carpenter’s helper.

Smoked salmon or turkey breast, with tomato slices and fresh basil was on the menu for breakfast. That should cover many of the potentially listeria-laden foods that pregnant women shouldn’t eat for nine months. But you won’t hear that from listeria expert Michael McCain of Maple Leaf Foods, who is still strangely silent on the tough questions.

Amy’s mom was here for the birth and that turned out to be awesomely cool. But she did have to fly home through the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport, which according to KNXV-TV, contains numerous restaurants with “major health violations.  In some cases, repeatedly failing to follow health code requirements. …

“Famous Familigia in Terminal 4 received 17 major violations including ‘deli slicer soiled with food debris’ and 12 of 15 employees ‘without food service worker cards. …’

“In October 2008, the Kokopelli Deli in Terminal 3 was cited after an employee ‘washed his hands then brushed his teeth with his fingers then went to work with food.’  In Terminal 4 at Flo’s Shanghai Cafe, employees were caught ‘cutting chicken with bare hand,’ ‘portioning peanuts onto chicken bare handed.’”

If you’re waiting on an e-mail reply from me on anything in particular, you may be waiting awhile longer. And while my usual e-mail style is terse, typing one-handed means the responses will be terserer. It’s nothing personal, just a baby thing. Really. It’s not you, it’s me. Really.

Canadian Feds fretted over listeria criticism

Canadian Press has concluded that, based on copies of 53 handwritten pages obtained under the Access to Information Act, government officials and political aides were deeply concerned about critical media coverage at the height of the Canadian listeriosis crisis beginning Aug. 12, 2008.

CP reports that about 30 scientists, senior bureaucrats and political staff usually took part in the daily conference calls, which typically began at 9 a.m. on weekdays and 10 a.m. on weekends.

One note implies officials were as concerned about communications as they were about managing a public health scare that has so far claimed 20 lives.

"What is the process for alerting the public to cover off (the) ‘it took too long’ angle?" it says.

You don’t need 30 people on a conference call to figure out the angle. Have someone – anyone – provide a detailed accounting of who knew what when. Like, these conference calls may have started Aug. 12, 2008, but the first public notification was at 3 a.m. Aug, 17, 2008, with the weasel words,

“There have been no confirmed illnesses associated with the consumption of these products.”

There were lots of sick people by then.

The real question, which no one has answered, is, When does sufficient evidence exist to warn the public? What are the existing protocols? Does epidemiology matter? But note the person cited in the story was more concerned with “the process for alerting the public to cover off (the) ‘it took too long angle?”

Michael McCain also continues his insistence that listeria is everywhere and the company did everything possible. If listeria’s everywhere, why didn’t you warn those vulnerable old people and pregnant women before the outbreak? And where’s the listeria testing data?

Now, the 30 of you and your salaries, discuss and analyze. Watch the tasteless jokes, though. They tend to leak out.

A Maple Leaf hasn’t been near the Stanley Cup in 40 years; you’re safe from listeria

Spirits were high Saturday night as the Toronto Maple Leafs opened their at-home hockey season night to the rhythms of the Smashing Pumpkins.

Fresh off an unexpected victory against defending Stanley Cup champs, the Detroit Red Wings, on Thursday, and with a bad Def Leopard live performance following the game, things were looking up for the Leafs.

The Leafs lost horribly to Montreal on Saturday night and reality set in.

Companies, like hockey teams, can also show flashes of brilliance, only to revert to old ways.

Michael McCain, president and CEO of Toronto-based Maple Leaf Foods, was widely praised for his compassionate and heartfelt response to the deaths of now 20 people from Maple Leaf cold-cuts.

But now Mr. McCain has taken to lecturing Canadians on the realities – or at least Mr. McCain’s realities – of the inevitability of listeria in everything, reminding me of the Tragically Hip song that goes, “I thought you beat the death of inevitability to death just a little bit. …

“We don’t’ go to hell, the memories of us do.”

McCain is using the increased media spotlight not to call for increased warnings to vulnerable populations, like the 20 who died, and pregnant woman (because, after all, listeria is everywhere) but to say how unfair it is that McCain’s Maple Leaf Foods has to compete with small plants.

"Right now, we have two-tier system. It is clear to me and, I think, most scientists would agree with this, that the provincial standards are not at the same level as the federal standards. … Right now, saying it’s acceptable for Canadian consumers to have one standard that applies to companies like Maple Leaf and another standard that is significantly below that for many, many others who are provincially inspected is not right for consumers. …

"That’s actually the travesty. If they were aware and they made a conscious choice that’s acceptable to them, everybody is free to make a good choice. But I think the travesty here is they’re probably not even aware of different standards out there."

OK, Mr. McCain, give consumers the choice and, as Carl says, stop whining. Market food safety. Advertize your allegedly superior food safety protocols. Put it on the label. And warn those populations who are particularly vulnerable – and missing from your latest missives.

Below is a video clip from the Canadian band and hockey fanatics, The Tragically Hip, with some apt lyrics:

it’s a monumental big screen kiss
it’s so deep it’s meaningless

Oh, and the joke making the rounds in Canada?

“Q & A’s from Health Canada

“ Q: The Stanley Cup was recently on tour in my town, and I kissed it. Do I have to worry about being infected by listeria?

“A: You are safe.  The Stanley Cup has not been in contact with any Maple Leaf in over 40 years.”