On reaping and sowing & Maple Leaf Foods

The Maple Leaf Foods product contamination/recall issue of recent weeks is remarkable to me for two reasons.

First, that Maple Leaf was so proactive in immediately recalling all their products and shutting down the plant even though only two product lines were affected. Then they put COE and President Michael McCain front and centre with a brief, sympathetic message to everyone who’s become ill from the tainted products and especially to family members of those who died. The message was free from any attempts to shift blame or deny responsibility.

The man looks devastated. He admits failure (actually using the word). He puts a human face on the company when speaking of their 23,000 employees. He admits he will have to win back the public’s confidence and promises to do whatever it takes to earn that. He has told his shareholders that money will not be a consideration in solving this problem.

I think the $20 million or so this is going to cost the company will be money well spent. Maple Leafs’ public relations around this issue has been so brilliant it will be a PR textbook case study for years to come. It should also help them when the law suits come flooding in.

The second thing that’s noteworthy about this product contamination thing is that highlights how far removed we are from the food we eat. It’s taking forever to track down where all these tainted products have ended up because there are distributors of distributors of distributors. The products are not only neatly packaged under the Maple Leaf banner in grocery stores – they are also shipped out to restaurants, delicatessens, hospitals, nursing homes and other institutions in bulk.

Once, everything we ate had recently been growing or had roamed around in our backyards or in the backyards of our neighbours. Our food used to go from the backyard to the table and the only people who touched it were family or other people you knew in your community.

Now? How many hands has that bacon passed through, from pig to pan, before it ends up on your McBreakfast? Hundreds? Thousands? So much opportunity for contamination it’s a wonder this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often.

And for what? Convenience? Variety? Cost? Does all our food have to come ready-made so we don’t have to spend more than 3 minutes preparing it? Do we really need to eat strawberries in February?

And why do we begrudge spending money on food? After shelter this should be our most important expense. People boast about how they only spend a dollar on bread by driving to the big box store and getting it in bulk. In how many ways is that totally crazy?


15 responses to “On reaping and sowing & Maple Leaf Foods

  1. I will admit not following the story too closely as I don’t eat prepared/processed lunch meat. But I will say this, they have a pretty darn good crisis management team there. This strategy is brilliant.

    As for the money it will cost them, they’ll get some of it back from their insurance. What I do hope is that they will compensate their employees fully.

    I think society has become way too used to convenience, we use the excuse of being too busy to cook a meal so it’s a lot easier to just stop by the store/restaurant/junk food places like McDonald et al and pick it up all done. But there is a definite turn into this trend. Many more people are embracing the 100 mile lifestyle (I hate calling it diet) and realize that no, you don’t need strawberries in January in fact, they taste crappy. Hopefully people with children will be able to pass on the importance of eating healthy to their kids.

    As for me, I’ll just continue to do what I’m doing, cook healthy meals from scratch as much as I can.

  2. I was impressed w/ Maple Leaf’s handling of this situation as well – and just as surprised by how this sort of thing doesn’t happen more often. Great post!

  3. Agreed. Rest assured that this case will be used as an excellent example to other organizations dealing with crisis management. It’s being handling beautifully and very genuine.

    The only teeny weeny little thing that does concern me is the fact that they are taking more than what they know for sure has been tainted, off the shelves. Maybe this is all part of risk management and best practice but makes me wonder if its because they are uncertain if anything else has been? I do hope not, but not sure.

    And to your point about the fact that its a wonder this doesn’t happen more often – me thinks it does – sadly just doesn’t come to light or individuals are not diagnosed.

    In a perfect world, none of should need to rely on pre-packaged foods but with our lives nowadays it can be very difficult to get around this.

    I can personally vouch for that.

    Great topic.

  4. I’m not familiar with the story either, but something about what you said resonated with me.

    Growing up, my mom ran a huge garden (and she still does). Nearly 95% of our fruits and veggies came from our farm. Nearly all of our meat came from our cows and my grandpa’s hogs. My grandma raised chickens, so that’s where we got our eggs. (And, I’m 34-yrs old, so we’re not talking the Olden Days.)

    We had strawberries in the dead of winter, because we picked them by the bushel and then my mom prepped and froze them. She did the same with her canning, etc.

    I remember HATING working in the garden and doing all of the manual labor that goes into the whole thing. And, I will never forget my mom saying, “Stop complaining! Just think how good these will taste in February.”

    And she was right.


  5. UA- I don’t eat meat at all but I’ve been facsinated by this story for the reasons I’ve noted above. I agree it’s awful how we regard food — it fuels our bodies, keeps us alive, “let food be your medicine and medicine be your food” said Hippocrates! There’s nothing more important, yet it’s an afterthought for a lot of people. It should take time and energy and cost. People worry more about what sort of fuel they’re putting in their cars than they do about the fuel they’re putting in their bodies.

    Tania – Thanks and yes, as a recent PR graduate, I think Maple Leaf couldn’t have done any better

    Anonymous (Raino??) – I think Maple Leaf just wanted to be sure. They seem genuinely concerned and I may be naive, but they’re a small company with an excellent history (considering they produce processed meant) and I think this has really shaken them up.

    CP – I think it’s largely a Canadian story since most of the affected people are from Ontario and BC and I totally hear you about the garden. I grew up on a farm and it was non-stop work for everyone, but we always had amazing things to eat.

  6. XUP – Yes it’s me RAINO … busted. Seriously, I don’t know why I keep coming up anonymous. Like I said, I think ML have done a FAB job.

  7. Having lived on farms I appreciate the amount of work it takes to put food on your table if you do all the work yourself… I know I ate good but also worked hard. Unfortunately in our tiny houses on tiny lots, you can’t grow much so we have to depend on companies liKe Maple Leaf Foods to feed us. I must admit though, they have taken this problem and seem to be trying their best to prevent any further illness and try and instill confidence in the consumer with what they are doing. I see a high level of ethics in this matter. I only wish Ford Canada had shown this level of ethics in a problem they have with the F150.


  8. It is crazy in more ways that you or I can count.. This should be a reality check for all of us, it is indeed a wonder that it doesn’t happen more often.

  9. Raino – Well they’ve done a good job with PR — not so good on the producing tainted processed meat products.

    Oakville Homes – Do you have a blog? Your name doesn’t link to one. Anyway, I’m not saying we should all be growing our food in our actual backyards, just that we should give up control of our food so easily to corporate farms and multinational food processing plants — we should support our local farmers more so they’ll continue to thrive.

    Jazz- People forget really fast. Look how cuckoo everyone went when Mad Cow first hit the papers. Now nobody thinks twice about it. If I had been eating meat when all that stuff came to light, I’d never touch the stuff again. CJ is one horrible way to die — and people are still dying of it every day.

  10. Great depth on this. Good corporate response for sure.

    What if we could get back to Victory Gardens and urban people supplying 1/3 of their food in-house. Where there’s a will…

  11. What a great post. Even when we buy “fresh produce” do we really know how or where it was grown? I prefer to shop at local farmers’ markets, and at the UBC department of agriculture market. I never buy packaged meat. Somehow, now matter how well it’s displayed, it always seems a bit slimy when you open it. This has cinched it for me.

  12. Pearl – thanks and you’re right, even a small balcony garden could get you enough tomatoes to get you through the summer

    Jo – Thank you. I’m with you. Of course, there could still be contamination with local farmers, but the chances are less because less people are involved in handling the produce. It all makes perfect sense, but people don’t want to spend the extra 50 cents for the local broccoli and mostly they don’t even want anything that requires preparation on their part. They want to open the ready-prepared bag of vegetables, dump them in a bowl and dump store-bought salad dressing over the lot.

  13. I agree the ML are handling it well. Death toll is up to 15 as of August 28th. Like you said, this will certainly become a case study in many textbooks to come. There is a project in Quebec of increasing the traceability of food products right up to parents of the slice of ham that made you sick. Good idea but I think the 100 mile rule is even better and also to integrate the ‘slow-food’ concept into our lifestyles.

  14. don’t laugh when you read this, but i had not heard of this. (ok, you can laugh it’s just i’m not big on current events.)

    this is an impressive response from the company, it’d be so great if other big business goons would take note and stop focusing so much on the money.

    i have a love/hate relationship with processed foods and all the chemicals being used and all the illnesses that have popped up as a result of said chemicals.

  15. DP – I’m not laughing. I think it was really only a Canadian issue, so of course you wouldn’t have heard of it because god forbid Americans should know anything more than is absolutely necessary about their very next door neighbours even though we have to sit through fifteen years of election campaigning every time ya’ll need a new president. Ha ha (now I’m laughing). No, really, you’re good. It’s nice that you read Canadian blogs anyway.