Food Safety Crisis 101: Maple Leaf's Keys to Restoring Confidence

It was arguably the largest food recall in Canada's history. So, what did Maple Leaf Foods Inc. learn from the listeriosis crisis? Rory McAlpine of Maple Leaf Foods Inc. shared his company's experiences with delegates at the Banff Pork Seminar 2009.
calendar icon 10 April 2009
clock icon 4 minute read

Rory McAlpine
Vice-President, Government & Industry Relations, Maple Leaf Foods Inc.

Several key lessons were reinforced by the experience, says Rory McAlpine, Vice-President, Government & Industry Relations, speaking at the Banff Pork Seminar.

  1. Accept responsibility
    The first of these was the importance of accepting responsibility, he says. "Absolutely there's no way to avoid taking the responsibility. We had what we thought was the best of the best in Listeria control and monitoring system, but it clearly wasn't good enough and we had a breach. We accepted that we were responsible. Throughout the situation we defended the integrity of government and its regulation and accepted the accountability as the manufacturer of the food."
  2. Do the right thing and dare to be transparent
    Equally important was transparency. "We lead with facts and tried to be as transparent as possible. There was nothing that we were trying to hide. And even though we were faced with serious legal consequences because of this, we set that aside."
  3. Act quickly
    Urgency was also essential. "We learned that in a situation like this, communications or media cannot wait. We had news conferences at 10:30 on Saturday nights; we had them on Sunday mornings. The media cycle was relentless and you can't be seen as delaying in any response to new information. One weakness, we were not as good as we should have been in terms of French language communication in Quebec. We needed to be better prepared, and we've learned our lesson there."
  4. Use external support
    Another key component was to leverage external experts. The company utilized both Canadian U.S. experts for our communications and investigative activity and established additional support wherever it was needed. "In this kind of environment, there's a million things happening at once, and you need to have proper support for everything."
  5. Restore confidence
    There's no way to put a silver lining on tragedy. All that can be asked for is to take responsibility and handle things to the best of ones abilities. For a food company, the best measure of success in doing that is to make advances in restoring consumer confidence.

"As much as the company is appreciative of some of the positive appraisals of our handling of the situation, at the end of the day, it's about whether the consumers comes back, one by one, to the product." That means never losing focus, and constantly doing everything that is needed to reassure the consumer that if they make a purchase it is going to be safe.

Surveys have shown consistent improvements for Maple Leaf in restoring consumer confidence ever since the peak of the crisis. That is the building point for the company in charting its future and doing whatever it can to prevent a similar crisis.

The Path Forward

"The path forward for us is firstly implementing a food safety programme that is best in practice," said Mr McAlpine. "Before the crisis, we had what we thought was an outstanding North American leading programme. But we decided we are going to do a whole lot better. And believe me, we have been doing an extraordinary number of new things to do that since all of this happened."

The most recent step has been to hire Dr Randall Huffman as the company's new Chief Food Safety Officer. Dr Huffman, formerly the president of the American Meat Industry Foundation, is recognized as North America's leading expert in Listeria control, based on his scientific and industry experience.

This is the type of step that is the core of the company's path forward, explained Mr McAlpine. "It's a path that is continually ongoing, and one where it our responsibility to constantly strive for improvement."

April 2009
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