October 27, 2008
by George Guidoni
One would think that in the wake of last year’s tainted pet-food fiasco that nearly put Menu Foods Limited out of business, food-processing and packaging companies would make erring on the side of caution a fundamental guiding principle of their daily operations insofar as product safety goes. Maybe it’s time to think again.
The listeria hysteria unleashed last month following the discovery of contaminated cold-cuts produced at a Maple Leaf Foods plant in northern Toronto may not have been a train-wreck waiting to happen, but with the death-toll across the country rising by the day, it is another tragically painful lesson—if one was needed—on the importance of putting safety first, always, without exception.
While a company the size of Maple Leaf Foods undoubtedly has deep-enough pockets to absorb the estimated $20 million in losses to date resulting from the plant shutdown and clean-up, nationwide product recall and lost sales, they may not be deep-enough to settle the multitude of gazillion-dollar class action suits coming its way.
To its credit, Maple Leaf management has so far done all the right things to minimize the fallout: initiating a major recall, sanitizing the plant, running television ads with chief executive Michael McCain sharing the company’s profound regrets and accepting full responsibility, etc.
All that, alas, is too late for the outbreak victims, but it’s hard to see just what else the company can do in the near-term to regain the public trust and confidence, already shaken up in prior weeks by the elusive salmonella outbreak first blamed on U.S.-grown tomatoes and, ultimately, traced to Mexican jalapeno peppers, of all things.
What Canadian consumers really need at the moment is reassurance by the higher powers at work that Canada’s food safety system is reliable and effective enough to protect the unsuspecting public from further fatal bacteria contaminations. On that score, Ottawa’s response to the ongoing crisis has been far short of reassuring.
It is no secret that the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) has not been well-served by the current Conservative government obsessed with penny-pinching at every level of the federal civil service, and Health Minister Tony Clement’s insistence that the system is “working as it should” amounts to an insult to our collective intelligence.
The government’s own promise to hire dozens more food inspectors at CFIA is, in fact, nothing less than a de facto admission that its staff-cutting, underfunding policies have finally caught up with it in the worst possible way.