Maple Leaf Crisis Recovery — On its Way

December 04, 2008

Maple Leaf Crisis Recovery — On its Way

I have written before about the Maple Leaf food crisis in Canada last August. In short, Maple Leaf is the largest meat company in Canada and its packaged meat in its Toronto plant was tied to 20 deaths from listeriosis.  The CEO of this 100+ year old company, Michael McCain, closed the plant, recalled its products (estimated at $30 million) and communicated communicated communicated. His message to customers was that the buck stopped with him and he was fully accountable. He was on the evening news, YouTube and accessible to journalists. McCain took action and he said all the right things. The CEO let the company values of doing the right thing guide him through the crisis. One of his statements should be noted: “Going through the crisis, there are two advisers I’ve paid no attention to. The first are the lawyers and the second are the accountants. It’s not about money or legal liability—this is about our being accountable for providing consumers with safe food.”  Talk about straight talk. He said he felt bad saying that about legal and accounting but it was the truth. Often times CEOs have to work out their comments with their legal teams and it conflicts with PR who reminds CEOs to think first about their employees and customers. Maple Leaf has instituted new sanitizing regulations, employee training, a food safety advisory council and the hiring of a chief food safety officer. Maple Leaf is working closely with the government and peer companies to make food safety the top priority for the industry.  All in all, a textbook crisis management case study for those of us interested in them. The well-respected The Globe and Mail had a great roundup of the event and rehabilitation recently.
This week my colleague Daniela in Toronto sent me an interesting addendum to the crisis I thought it worth sharing. Now that it is several months later, CEO McCain offered to answer questions from readers to The Globe and Mail .  A few Q&As for my blog are posted below:

  • Heidi Croot from Canada writes: Your response to this crisis has been lauded as textbook perfect. You’ve certainly won my admiration and support for the way you’ve navigated things. What two or three pieces of advice would you share with executive teams of other companies facing a crisis, to persuade them to take your approach vs. the more popular closed kimono approach.
  • Michael McCain writes: Thanks for your kind words, Heidi, although we have made it quite clear that we aren’t allowing ourselves any luxury or opportunity for “back patting” in such a terrible situation. We have just tried to handle it in the most responsible way we knew how, by putting consumers’ interest and public health first. As for advice, that’s hard to give, as every situation is different. In our case, we only knew what came natural to our culture and DNA…. First, be open and transparent. Second, accept accountability and don’t waiver on that. And third, take action to fix a tragic wrong. In our culture, we try to behave that way every day. It serves us best, in times of challenge.
  • Shannon Hill from Guelph Canada writes: In light of the recent listeriosis outbreak, what changes are being made to the testing procedures, and what new plans have been or are going to be implemented in order to assure that this will not happen again?
  • Michael McCain writes: Hey Shannon, this may be the most important question of all. What’s changed? Well, a lot, is the summary answer… are the major things, but remember Shannon, food safety means reducing the risk to its absolute lowest possible level, while it is impossible to eradicate listeria from our food supply. First, we have more than doubled our testing events in our plants, and we have substantially enhanced the nature of the testing to dramatically improve the probability of finding a problem. Second, we review those results and findings with substantially more rigour. Each and every day, our teams of experts – including microbiologists – review the reports from that day to analyse the results of the testing. Third, we have increased the amount of sanitization, including the dissassembly procedures for equipment like the slicers that were at the root of this situation. We sanitize this equipment for 6-8 hours per day! And, we have changed the approach to how this sanitization occurs in the plant. Fourth, we recognize that this is a long term commitment. Food safety gets better and better each and every year. There is new technology, and new approaches every year. To make sure we stay on top of this – in the front all the time – we have hired a new Chief Food Safety Officer (A Phd/Microbiologist). The person we have hired is possibly one of the best in the world in this field. His job is to lead this effort for Maple Leaf, to keep us at the front of this and amongst the best in the world – and he will report directly to me. Lastly, we are developing a future looking food safety covenant for all 23,000 people on our team to endorse and commit to, recognizing the responsibility we all share – regardless of the very low risk – for providing safe, nutritious food. We have food safety first at this company! Thanks for asking your question. Michael

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Leslie Gaines-Ross
Leslie Gaines-Ross

As Weber Shandwick’s Chief Reputation Strategist, I focus on the ever changing world of reputation. For the past 25 years, I have relentlessly observed, researched and commented on the rise and fall of corporate and CEO reputations.

  • Organizations Alive! » Blog Archive » Safe Food
    Posted at 16:55h, 07 December Reply

    […] Gaines-Ross wrote in her blog on December 4th about the recent Maple Leaf Crisis Recovery here in Canada. I too was impressed with how Michael McCain, CEO of the largest Canadian meat […]

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