Sunday, 24 August 2008

Tainted Meat and Blowing Up The Neighbourhood

Maple Leaf Foods is going through what every food company fears most: a deadly bacterial infection traced back to it's food products.

Listeria Monocytogenes Bacterium

If there can be a silver lining to an outbreak that has killed four and infected dozens, with dozens more cases likely on the way, is that the source was found quickly and isolated to a single plant.

From both a financial and consumer confidence point of view this will be blow to Maple Leaf. I have watched with interest, though, how Maple Leaf has dealt with the problem.

When the first suspected cases appeared on August 17 in the Toronto area, Maple Leaf voluntarily recalled products not only from the potentially infected production line but
those adjacent to it as well. The recall was for 23 products and the entire plant was closed.

It was on August 23 that the Public Heath Agency of Canada was able to confirm the link between the cases of listeriosis and the Maple Leaf Toronto plant and Maple Leaf has announced that it will expand their recall list to include EVERYTHING produced at the Toronto plant since June 2 as an additional safety precaution. NOTE: they will be releasing the new list on Sunday 24 August (see here for updated information).

The Maple Leaf Foods CEO held a press conference after the link was confirmed to personally express "deepest and sincere condolences" for the families of the four who died and to say, essentially, 'yup, it was our fault and we're doing everything we can to get your confidence back'.

These actions may seem like no-brainers and, one would hope, is the way any company would deal with safety issues but, sadly, they do not. Take, for example, the Toronto propane depot explosion .

It took about a week, and after the city had to take over the clean-up of the site and surrounding area from the company, for executives to release their very first public comments (in writing) to tell people not to 'rush to judgement' and, by the way, they will not be making any more public comments for the foreseeable future. Youch.

In 1982 when 'tainted Tylenol' turned up in the U.S. Johnson and Johnson's reaction is still written about and presented at conferences as the 'gold standard' for dealing deal with a sudden, potentially disastrous situation and come through it. A lawyer with Ogilvie Renault, a Toronto law firm with a crisis management division, boils down the success of a company's reaction to the first 72 hours after crisis strikes "...businesses need to act responsibly. They need to deal with it quickly and efficiently to protect the safety of the public and the future of their business"

Obviously something went very wrong at Maple Leaf to have allowed the bacteria to get into their plant but I have a feeling that Maple Leaf who, from all appearances, have been proactive, open, doing more than they needed to and not hiding behind a corporate lawyer to give a sort of, kind of, maybe apology will probably find itself coming out of this looking more like Tylenol than smelling like Sunshine Propane.

UPDATE 25 August: The larger recall by Maple Leaf has had a domino effect on other food companies....
- Products recalled by Lucerne Foods due to possible contamination
- Sandwich distributor launches recall, could contain tainted meat

To keep up, you can go to the Feds' one-stop food recall site There you can also sign up for email alerts of future recalls due to health issues or allergy warnings.

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