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Corporate honesty

Listeria report good news for food-safety system

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 1/2/2009 (4129 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Michael McCain, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, received high marks for his handling of the listeria outbreak last year.


Michael McCain, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, received high marks for his handling of the listeria outbreak last year.

Just six months after successfully battling a major outbreak of listeria at a Toronto plant, Maple Leaf Foods says another case has been found at a wholly owned subsidiary. And that's a good thing.

I would have been suspicious that someone was hiding something if no new cases had been reported. Listeria is persistent and difficult to control.

As Michael McCain, Maple Leaf's president and chief executive says: "The greatest risk to the Canadian food-safety system is the multitude of Canadian plants which do not find positive test results simply because they don't test adequately. If you test, you will find and you can eradicate with the proper protocols. If you don't test you won't find, but there will be no eradication which is the real food safety risk in this country."

The recent outbreak, says Maple Leaf, does not pose a risk to the public. Last summer's crisis was linked to the deaths of 20 Canadians.

But McCain has received high marks for his handling of the situation.

Soon after the outbreak, he appeared in a TV ad to apologize and admit the failures of the firm's protocols. Subsequent communications were praised for their transparency and focus on consumers' health over that of the bottom line. The company initiated a $30-million recall of some products and implemented 200 new standard operating procedures in its plants.

A class-action lawsuit linked to the outbreak was settled by Maple Leaf out of court in December for $25 million to $27 million. A Canadian government inquiry into the matter is expected to report in mid-July.

Honesty is particularly important in the food business. Without help from growers, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency would not have been able to tackle effectively the recent outbreak of avian influenza at a Fraser Valley British Columbia turkey farm.

As many as 60,000 birds had to be euthanized and the movement of poultry products in the district was restricted. The agency said the strain involved in the outbreak was not severe.

The honesty of McCain and the turkey farmers are in sharp contrast to the devious actions of some big shots in the financial world.

Bernie Madoff, the New York hedge fund manager, has been accused of looting or losing $50 billion. John Thain, nicknamed "I Robot" and former CEO of Merrill Lynch, has been accused of not telling the truth about his company's liabilities when it was taken in by Bank of America. The fact he paid $12,000 for a wastebasket in a $1.2-million redecoration of his office while looking for government handouts didn't help his image either.

In India, B. Ramalinga Raju, former chair of Satyam Computer Services Ltd., is said to have used salary payments to 13,000 fictitious employees to siphon millions of dollars from the firm.

Before you conclude that the world is going to hell in a hand basket, I should point out that Maple Leaf is not the only organization working hard at corporate honesty. A Winnipeg institution, the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, is gaining a national reputation for its efforts.

Finding out about medical mistakes is sometimes not easy. Some people are reluctant to talk because they fear punishment or legal suits. In crude terms, a few doctors were said to "bury their mistakes."

The WRHA's attitude is different: It wants to know about errors, examine them and try to make sure they don't happen again and, if necessary, apologize to patients. The institution focuses on finding out what happened and taking steps to eradicate problems.

"People don't join a hospital to do harm," says an official. Many errors are a result of faulty systems such as poorly labelled bottles, confusing methods of storage, inadequate checking when a patient is moved from one unit to another.

Dr. Rob Robson, the WRHA's chief patient-safety officer, says the organization's patient-safety teams analyze more critical incidents than anywhere else in Canada.

They are helped by provincial legislation that says health officials do not have to release the details of any critical incidents. Families of patients involved receive a summary of the investigation. Hospitals are encouraged to apologize to patients when a mistake is made and offer compensation when appropriate.

In one area of the public service, however, honesty is not often the best policy. Robert Marleau, Canada's information commissioner, says the public knows less than ever about what Ottawa is doing.

At a time when Barack Obama is pushing for openness in the United States, our Conservative government has a "communication stranglehold" on the bureaucracy.

As for doing what Maple Leaf did and admit an error and apologize: Forget about it.


Tom Ford is managing editor of The Issues Network.


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