Title: Food crisis: lessons from the Listerosis debacle

Sub-title: All indications are that Canadian grocers acted responsibly during the recent troubles. However Canada’s food inspection regime clearly needs to be beefed up.

 

Nineteen confirmed deaths, millions of dollars worth of products recalled and Canadians everywhere questioning whether what they eat is safe; the Listeriosis outbreak has turned the public’s attention toward the food industry. And, as always, when that happens, grocers inevitably get caught in the middle.

 

The good news experts say, is that Canada’s grocery distributors appear to have acted responsibly throughout the recent crisis. “Ironically, grocers are vulnerable in the same way that the general public is,” says William Leiss, a food safety expert, author and researcher at the University of Ottawa. “They depend on suppliers to deliver safe, high-quality merchandise and on government to ensure that tough standards are implemented and adhered to. But once they were called on to act they did so immediately.”

 

Linda Smith, a spokesperson at Maple Leaf Foods, agrees. “Grocers were extremely responsive during the entire process,” says Smith. “From the time the recalls of the initial two SKUs were announced through to when those were broadened to encompass many other lines, we had almost all of the products back within a few days.”

 

However now that the dust is starting to settle, food industry stakeholders are starting to ask themselves what can be done to minimize the chances that events like this will recur. A key first step came when the federal government announced an independent investigation into the listeriosis outbreak. “The Canadian food safety system is generally regarded as on the best in the world. Protecting the health of Canadian families and the food supply is of paramount importance,” read the communiqué announcing the new measures. “As such it is important to determine exactly what transpired.”

 

Anatomy of a scandal

The basic facts surrounding the crisis seem clear enough. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency issued its initial warnings regarding possible Listeria monocytogenes contaminations of two Maple Leaf Foods brands (Sure Slice and Corned Beef) on August 17th. Two days later the warnings were extended. Within two weeks, the Maple Leaf eventually recalled more than 200 products worth close to $20 million. The company then shut down its Bartor Road plant and subjected it to a broad review, which included intensive testing. Several days later, the likely culprit of the initial contamination was identified: a possible collection point for bacteria located deep inside the mechanical operations of two of the company’s slicing machines. Two weeks later, after extensive cleaning, pre-operation inspections and a promise to improve standards, the facility was reopened.

 

Of course food crises are nothing new, either here in Canada nor elsewhere. Words like Listeriosis, “Mad Cow Disease,” “Salmonella,” and “recall,” have sadly become part of our vocabulary. According to one estimate, between 11 and 13 million people get sick each year in Canada as a result of bad food, at an overall annual cost to the Canadian economy of more than $1 billion.

 

Ironically one could argue that as a Western nation, Canada gets off somewhat easy in terms of criticism. For example, as this article was being written, the Chinese milk industry was being raked over the coals by the international media, after certain categories of baby formula were pulled from store shelves, even though the collateral damage appears far less widespread than in the Listeriosis case.

 

Textbook crisis management

Part of the reason that Canadian food crises are taken less seriously than those elsewhere, stems from what appears to be have been fairly rapid reactions by many of the parties involved. For example the moves made by officials at Maple Leaf Foods came straight from crisis management textbooks.

 

Maple Leaf, which employs 23,000 people at its North American plants runs one of Canada’s leading food processing operations. However with $5.2 billion in annual sales at stake, once a problem was identified, the company left nothing to chance.  The company almost immediately admitted its errors, put out loads of information through its Internet site and by purchasing media time. And to top it all off Maple Leaf put the face of its CEO Michael McCain out there in front of the cameras to take the heat.  The big question now is whether those steps will be enough to satisfy a clearly angered public.

 

Questions remain

According to Leiss, the questions about the recent events go far beyond Maple Lead Foods. “Both government and industry should start to rebuild public confidence by providing clear information about Canada’s food safety regime using the risk control of Listeria monocytogens as an example. We need to know what went wrong and how the systems can be fixed,” says Leiss. “For example we know that cutbacks were made to the system and now information has come out that the government was planning to cut back even further. To what extent were shortfalls in personnel at issue?”

 

Among the questions that Leiss wants answered are how the regulatory standards for the pathogen have been updated, whether these standards were examined by independent experts and what listeria control regimes were been implemented at Canadian food processing plants.

 

Canada’s meat processing industry, which is dominated by a few large players with names such as Cargill, XL Foods, Olymel, Maple Leaf and Quality Meat Packers, generated close to $20 billion of sales in 2006. Yet despite the big dollars at stake, according to a recent report obtained by the CBC under Canada’s Access to Information Act, Canadian food officials were aware of the inspections regimes weaknesses long before the current difficulties.

 

Lessons for the future

As to how things will unfold in the future, things remain up in the air. The Canadian Food Inspection agency, which has already been the subject of much controversy will no doubt have to take a new look at the way it does business.

 

Furthermore, according to Leiss, the are indications that grocery suppliers may end up sharing much of the blame.  “In the weeks that followed the Listeriosis crisis, many other manufacturers issued recalls of their products” said Leiss.

 

For example, in one highly visible case, the Ferme Ecologique Co-operative d’Ulverton, which is located in Quebec’s Eastern Townships region, was forced to recall two of its cheeses, (Chevre des Vallons and Ulverton) after the province’s Department of Agriculture, found traces of listeria at the plant. However these were only two of close to a dozen brands of Quebec cheeses which were recalled after 22 people became sick. “This is an indication that some of these companies may not have been doing as much testing as they should have in the past, but may have only recently begun broadening their inspections,” said Leiss.

 

As for the grocery industry, many of the key players remain tight lipped. “No one wants to see their company’s name printed in an article about food safety, even if it is for a good reason,” one long time industry veteran joked.

 

As a result, as is often the case for controversial issues, the key players deferred to the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors, which posted recall information on the group’s Web-site site. “Food safety is a primary concern for our members,” said Jackie Crichton, the Canadian Council of Grocery Distributors’ director (food safety and environmental affairs). “So we wanted to make sure that our response was both meaningful and coordinated.”

 

Sidebar: A Listeriosis Primer*

Listeria monocytogenes is a small, gram-positive bacillus that can grow in anaerobic or aerobic conditions. It is found widely in the environment in soil, decaying vegetation and may be part of the fecal flora of many mammals.

 

·      People most at risk of listeriosis are pregnant women, newborns, the elderly and immuno-compromised patients such as sufferers of cancer diabetes and kidney disease.

·      General recommendations for reducing the risk of liseriosis include thoroughly cooking raw food from animal sources, washing raw vegetation and avoiding raw unpasteurized milk

·      Those in high risk groups are advised not to eat hot dogs, deli meats or other ready to eat foods and not to handle soft cheeses.

 

For more information:

The Canadian Medical Association has published online information about Listeriosis. It is available at:

http://www.cmaj.ca/cgi/rapidpdf/cmaj.081377v1

 

* The Canadian Medical Association

 

 

Photo: A photo of Maple Leaf’s CEO Michael McCain is available in the Rogers Communications archives (Contact Canadian Business Magazine).

 

 

Peter Diekmeyer (peter@peterdiekmeyer.com) is Canadian Grocer’s Quebec correspondent.

 

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