Interview with Maple Leaf President Michael McCain
Conducted by the CBC's David McKie and the Toronto Star's Robert Cribb
MCCAIN: My weekly note is — you have access to, which — I don't think I would have designed it that way. But it is what it is.
CRIBB: HOW LONG YOU BEEN DOING IT?
MCCAIN: I think 10 years. Every week. Religiously.
CRIBB: WHY DO YOU DO IT?
MCCAIN: I think it's important to engage the people in the organization. People have an insatiable appetite to participate. I don't think there's any substitute for communicating openly and transparently. And I would hope that this conversation can mostly evolve around context. Because what's really critical about my weekly note is the context of it all. So I write that note in the context of the fact that we have a very strong culture in our organization, a culture that is built on very candid dialogue. A level of frankness that we would probably not replicate in the outside world. It's built on a level of transparency that is very important to our organization. And for me to believe in those organizationally, I have to demonstrate those personally. And so I do through my weekly note. So it engages people. It communicates what's going on transparently.
But context is ever so critical in this thing because I write it myself. It is totally unedited. I write it at the end of the week, late Friday night or Saturday morning. Takes me a couple of hours a week. And to be honest with you, once I write it, I don't even go back and look at it. I write it, push the send button and it's gone to 7,000 people…. There are 23,000 people, 7,000 salaried. Even the 18,000, in many cases it's posted in the plants.
Because it's completely unedited, it's something akin to a diary. It's personal. It's some business. It's full of mistakes. It's full of spelling errors. It's full of grammatical errors. There's some repetition depending on whether I remember I wrote about that or not. It's emotional. It has all those peaks and valleys, but more than anything, it's from the heart. And people, I think, broadly in the organization respect that. I get a dozen or more every week, people who respond from all around the world. More often than not sharing things they agree with, disagree with, like, don't like, any observation. And I respond to each one of them. And we have some amazing dialogue. Just plain speaking dialogue inside the organization.
What you do with this is going to be whatever you guys decide, but I would hope that you would in some small way understand the context, both at a macro level and at a micro level. Because all of the thoughts that are in there are represented impulsively. There's nothing put forward on the basis that it's going to end up in the great, unwashed public. It's meant as a private, intimate conversation between the people of my organization and myself. That's the context of it all. So what you do with it is, I guess, your call.
CRIBB: THE FIRST REFERENCE TO LISTERIA IS IN AN AUG. 20 MEMO. CAN YOU TAKE US THROUGH WHEN YOU FIRST FOUND OUT?
MCCAIN: I was called at about 10 p.m. on Saturday night. I was in Georgian Bay at my cottage, since you know where I go on the weekends in the summer time, by the president of that business ______________, and he was told that he was just called by our technical people at the CFIA and told on that Saturday late evening. I was just coming from a good friend's wedding, actually. And he told me that they had received a call from the CFIA and they found three Sure Slice products that tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes. And as a result of that call, we were initiating an immediate recall of those products, which is the standard practice in the business.
Being in the industry, I recognized the listeria is pervasive. So while we had not had any listeria recalls, the majority of listeria recalls are very isolated. So your first response is, "we're prepared for this." We handled it according to our defined protocols. We've had a commitment to food safety for decades. We've elevated that to a very strategic level 5 or 10 years ago. As part of our commitment to food safety, we said there are three elements to it. The first two are the most important. The first one is prevention. The second dimension is preparedness. Because you know in any food business that you can work to reduce risk, but you can never eliminate it. That meant an ability to swiftly recall.
We do regular recall simulations where we involved the CFIA, customers and so forth. We've done that regularly. What's in consumers' interest is to get it done as fast as possible. There are skills associated with that. Ensuring that your paperwork is up to date, that your customer contact list is up to date, your tracing capability.
So my first reaction was, okay, it's unfortunate, disappointing. It happens to all brands. Every brand in America has had this occur. There's one a month in America, one a month. Then that Monday morning when I came back, I spent most of the day on the phone … and then spent the morning at the plant.
MCKIE: SO THAT'S WHAT YOUR HEAD WAS TELLING YOU. BUT EMOTIONALLY, WAS THERE SOMETHING ELSE GOING ON ?
MCCAIN: Not at that stage … All we know was that listeria existed in the product. We didn't know anything about illness or health or any connection at that time.
CRIBB: LET ME JUST GO BACK TO THE TIMELINE. THE SATURDAY WAS THE 16TH. ON THE 13TH, MAPLE LEAF SENT LETTERS TO DISTTRIBUTORS ASKING THEM TO STOP SHIPPING CERTAIN PRODUCTS.
MCCAIN: That's a feature of our food safety system that doesn't exist normally in the industry. The standard industry practice is that you react to the science, which is CFIA's positive finding. They test routinely. We decided many years ago … that we would put in an additional safety mechanism that would facilitate a more rapid recall in the event that we had one. And the reason we did that was that if the CFIA called us and said we're looking at a certain product, we would take the steps pro-actively to confine the inventory just in case.
MCCAIN: So commonly they call and said we're investigating these products. It's relatively routine. We talked that step. We follow that procedure. Again, it's a more conservative approach to allow us to execute recalls faster. And we communicate that in the marketplace. But I don't get notified of those.… We weren't required to do that, but we take those early stage, precautionary measures just in case. Then if it's negative, and the vast majority of them are negative … Because it could be anything. It could be an allergen, or foreign material. All we know is that we get this call that says CFIA is looking at some products. We then go into a yellow alert, which helps us, even in the event that it's remote, to execute a recall quickly. But it's never escalated because it's routine.
MCKIE: SO YOU'RE SAYING THAT IT WAS AN INITIAL QUERY ON THE PART OF CFIA THAT PROMPTED YOU ON AUG. 13 TO COMMUNICATE WITH THE DISTRIBUTORS?
MCCAIN: Yes. All we knew was there was a routine investigation going on. The only reason we did that was added precaution.
MCKIE: THERE WAS NOTHING INSIDE YOUR OWN PLANT THAT PROMPTED YOU TO MAKE THAT MOVE ON AUG. 13?
MCCAIN: No. CFIA called us that day and told us, "we are investigating product."
(Maple Leaf spokeswoman Linda Smith says off microphone: They called on the 12th and the letter to distributors went out on the 13th)
CRIBB: YOU SAY A COUPLE OF TIMES THAT MAPLE LEAF IS GOING BEYOND WHAT THE CFIA REQUIRED. CAN YOU GIVE US A SENSE OF WHAT CFIA WAS TELLING YOU AND WHAT KINDS OF DEMANDS THEY WERE MAKING OF YOU WHEN THE RESULTS CAME BACK ON THE SATURDAY OR SUNDAY, I'M NOT SURE?
MCCAIN: All I know what they were telling us. And to them, this is a Listeria monocytogenes recall of the precautionary level as well. I think they would have viewed it as relatively contained and routine.
On the 20th, we still only had a handful of products that tested positive. We would have only been forced by the CFIA to recall those (he searches for a number with Linda Smith's help), four, five, three … on the 20th on Wednesday. It was the original three, plus they may have had one more … But we recalled all 20 from the line.
MCKIE: SO THAT'S AN EXAMPLE OF WHERE YOU WENT BEYOND WHAT WAS OBLIGATED?
MCCAIN: Exactly … The normal practice in the industry would be to recall product you specifically had a positive finding on. We had 198 products. We've only had positive findings on a small number. We recalled all 198. That's the significance of the action that we took.
You have to take it in stages. On Tuesday afternoon, which is the 19th, we got a call from the CFIA and they said to us, "look, you need to understand this. We're continuing to investigate the products that we've discussed with you. There are only a small number of products. But you need to understand there is simultaneously an investigation under way around a listeriosis outbreak in the country that involves illness and we believe, at that time, one loss of life with the potential for more. That investigation is underway, independent of this recall, but we think they … may be connected." That's when everything changed for us. And in the first instance, we recalled all of the product off line eight and nine, which was 21 or 22 skews.
On Saturday when they told us we have a linkage, we took the decision to recall everything. So this was a cascading based on the information that the CFIA was telling us at the time. We chose to recall all of the products in the plant on Saturday and close down the facility.
CRIBB: THERE'S A SERIES OF MEMOS THAT CAME OUT IN LATE AUGUST ON A DAILY BASIS WHERE THE NEWS WAS GETTING BAD … AUG. 22 AND 23 … READING THE TONE, THIS WAS THE BOTTOM FOR YOU … THE TONE SPEAKS FOR ITSELF. CAN YOU TAKE US THROUGH A LITTLE BIT ABOUT WHAT WAS GOING ON IN YOUR HEAD AT THAT POINT?
MCCAIN Because we have a very strong culture in this organization that is committed to doing the right thing, it would be reasonable to assume and understand that all 23,000 people in this organization have tremendous pride … the first and most obvious observation is that this is clearly a breach in that responsibility, and that we had to take accountability for that. And so there's a certain sadness that goes with that, right. And I think we all wore that, day in and day out.… We talk a lot, not a little, a lot, about the notion of accepting accountability in this and other things. It's part of our DNA.
You have a bevy of emotions, led by remorse and sadness. Equally, we have responsibilities. And the responsibilities were to act. To do, first, the right thing for the consumers, and then the right thing to recover the business because there are many people across the country who depend on the health of this business for their livelihood. Remorse and responsibility can coexist here and to some degree, they did.
CRIBB: SOME OF YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL TESTS SHOWED POSITIVES
MCCAIN: Environmental tests always show positives … listeria exists in 100 per cent of all plants. Any expert will tell you…. If you don't find positives, there's something wrong with your program.
CRIBB: SO THERE WAS NOTHING OUT OF THE ORDINARY IN TERMS OF A TRENDING?
MCKIE: THE BOTTOM LINE WAS THAT THERE WAS NOTHING HAPPENING INTERNALLY THAT INDICATED TO YOU THERE WAS A TREND TO BE CONCERNED ABOUT?
MCCAIN: No. No. We have a protocol. The protocol is when you get a positive, you sanitize. And when you get an immediate negative, it's done. And so all of the positives we had in that facility were followed up by negatives. So we would say that our program was in control in compliance. That's separate and distinct from the CFIA finding it in a product in the marketplace.
CRIBB: OKAY. CAN I TAKE YOU TO THE AUG. 26 MEMO, IT'S TALKING ABOUT THE RECLASSIFICATION OF THE NUMBER OF DECEASED AND SAYS PUBLIC HEALTH AGENCIES HAVE BEEN REPORTING FOUR BUT NOW REPORT 12 … THESE ARE ELDERLY PATIENTS WITH MULTIPLE CHALLENGES…. I JUST WANTED TO GET AN EXPLANATION OF THAT BECAUSE I DIDN'T UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENCE?
MCCAIN: You'd be better to get an explanation from somebody from Health Canada. So I'm just telling you what Dr. David Butler Jones told me. Because listeriosis is such a rare disease, four in one million — and it's not a random four, it's a vulnerable four — in many cases what I was told is that these individuals had significant health challenges, multiple health challenges. I don't want to be crass about this, but I was told by the health professionals that because these individuals had multiple health challenges, they were vulnerable to all of those health challenges. At the same time they had listeria in their blood but they told me they could not necessarily say that it was the listeriosis that was the cause of death. It may have been any of the other conditions that they had. But I'm only reflecting what I was told at the time by health professionals.
MCKIE: BECAUSE OF THE VULNERABILITIES THAT YOU TALK ABOUT, AND THE ELEMENT OF DOUBT, DOES THAT MEAN THAT THERE'S STILL AN ELEMENT OF DOUBT IN YOUR MIND ABOUT THE REAL NUMBERS?
MCCAIN: No, no…
MCKIE: YOU ACCEPT THE FACT THAT 20 HAVE BEEN LISTED SO FAR?
MCCAIN: Accountability is accountability. We took accountability for the actions without any legal or technical contest, which would be totally inappropriate. The public expects us to accept that accountability. It's very easy to see an army of lawyers and an army of accountants, counselling, which they did, trust me, saying, "You can't do that." Advising don't take accountability, blame somebody else.
CRIBB: PRESUMABLY YOU WERE HERE, SITTING IN ROOMS LIKE THIS
MCKIE: No, I wouldn't let them in. I didn't want to hear their voice. I was asked very firmly to take the call from the team of lawyers … and I said, "I don't want to talk to them." But that's standard practice for lawyers, right. They counsel people not to take responsibility. I just finished that call and somebody asked me at the press conference 'what about the legal side?' And I think at the time I said there's two voices I'm not listening to here. That was in reference to that. One was the lawyers and the other was the accountants.
CRIBB: WHAT DO ACCOUNTANTS SAY?
MCCAIN: Obviously, there's enormous financial implications to recalling all of the product versus the five or six that were tested positive. There's no technical requirement to shut down the plant. Plants get positives all the time, they continue to operate.
CRIBB: I'M ON SEPT. 6
MCCAIN: Gee, you missed all the fun on the 28th and the 30th. I must have said something in there that was interesting. Goodness gracious. The 30th, that was the long weekend, actually. We had conference calls all that long weekend.
CRIBB: WE'LL ASK YOU ABOUT SEPT. 6, 9,000 CALLS A DAY? COME ON, IT'S IMPOSSIBLE!
MCCAIN: Yes, we did. We had to staff up … our consumer hotline service … in Montreal.
CRIBB: AND YOU WERE ALSO UPSET WITH AN ANONYMOUS EMPLOYEE WHO SPOKE TO A REPORTER ABOUT THE SLICERS AND YOU SAID "THE GOOD NEWS IS THAT NO ONE PAYS ATTENTION TO BULLSHIT LIKE THIS." YOU WERE OUTRAGED BY THAT, YES?
MCCAIN: I find hurtful mean-spirited dishonest statements to be offensive. To say to somebody that we haven't cleaned that slicer in years is a mean-spirited, dishonest statement. And whether they say it to their neighbour, or whether they say it to a reporter, I'm equally offended by that. Particularly when that's coming from someone who is risking the livelihood of their neighbours. So, yeah, I find that offensive. The importance, Rob, is to look at that in the context of the statement that was made: "haven't cleaned that slicer in years." We clean that equipment for six to eight hours every day … with multiple sanitizers and foam and steam and alcohol baths … with a team of sanitation professionals. So how does that square up with "haven't cleaned that slicer in years," which is what was reported? So I think it's context, it's reasonable to see why this would be offensive particularly when it comes from one of your own.
MCKIE: FAIR ENOUGH CRIBB: LET'S TALK ABOUT LAWYERS
MCCAIN: Did I talk about lawyers in this one? Oh, yes, dealing with legal matters, I did.
CRIBB: YOU SAY, "CLASS ACTION LAWYERS COLLECT OUTRAGEOUS FEES TO TRY TO ATTRACT MONEY FROM LARGE BODIES OF PEOPLE WHO MAKE THE THINNEST CLAIMS OF SO-CALLED EMOTIONAL STRESS, ILLNESS, TUMMY ACHE STUFF… THERE'S NO QUESTION THAT THIS IS ABSOLUTE FRAUD, THE SYSTEM ACCEPTS THIS … THE ATTORNEYS WHO MAKE MONEY FROM THIS AND THOSE WHO PARTICIPATE IN THESE ILLEGAL CLASSES NAUSEATE ME"… VERY STRONG LANGUAGE. TAKE US THROUGH WHY YOU FEEL SO STRONGLY
MCCAIN: This is an area, Rob and David, where I do hope that you consider my comments in context.… What I believe is that there are two constituencies here, as I wrote, "in the case of legitimate claims there are people affected by this who have difficulty representing themselves, and indeed whether guilty or not, we have accountability for compensation." That's what I believe … and I believe in the process that that gets resolved through, through the courts or otherwise. The challenge is, class actions are new to Canada. It's a U.S. phenomenon. The challenge is, the potential for claims that have absolutely no direct link, no connection, no proof, based on causes that are as common as the common cold, get linked potentially through the process, and it's the process that I find difficult to deal with. (It gets) linked to the process in a way that almost undermines what the real issue is, that some people were truly injured and we have an obligation to compensate them.
And sitting in the middle of the process, it becomes more about those who have no proof, no connection, with almost no sensitivity or interest in those who were truly injured. And I find that difficult … So to extract that is admittedly some pretty emotional language and throw that up, here it is, without the context of that whole thought … that's how I feel about it.
CRIBB: ISN'T IT UP TO THE COURT TO DECIDE WHICH CLAIMS ARE ILLEGITIMATE?
MCCAIN: It is. And it's in front of the courts and they will figure that out. But I would tell you that there are a lot of people who believe that there are a lot of outcomes in the class action process that get exposed to areas way, way outside … with no proof of connection. And that's what I think people find difficult to deal with.
MCKIE: EVEN WITH THE CONTEXT THAT YOU'VE PROVIDED, IS IT NOT EASY FOR SOMEONE TO MISINTERPRET THIS WHEN YOU USE THIS ADMITTEDLY STRONG LANGUAGE?
MCCAIN: Yes and no. Often times that my weekly note does… is reflective of the thousand of people I talk to inside the organization. And I can tell you that this view comes very pervasively (from) within the organization. People writing me notes about this. That they find this difficult to deal with. But again, context is critical here, David. The context is, I write this note as an intimate, like a diary … if you writing to your wife, you might write things with more extreme language than you would if you were on the street. You might use more extreme examples. And she may challenge you on that and say, "that's more extreme than it should be." Maybe this is, too. That's the context of what this is written in. But the reality is I think what's put forward here, which I think many people in our organization would share, is that there is a process that we respect where people have clear and legitimate claims and we have accountability for that for compensation. And we reflected that. We've always espoused that consistently inside the organization.
Am I prone to, in the context of this diary, using extreme language, yeah, I guess I am. But not at the expense of putting forward a balanced point of view.
David, the context here is we have always been consistently supportive of our accountability to provide compensation for those who are legitimately injured by this. And, Rob, as you point out, that's up to the courts to decide.
MCKIE: BUT THOSE WHO FEEL THEY HAVE A LEGITIMATE CLAIM … WHAT IF SOMEONE WERE TO CHALLENGE YOU ON YOUR DIARY TO SAY 'WAIT A MINUTE HERE…
MCCAIN: People do regularly. I get a dozen of them a week. That's what constitutes a dialogue, right.
MCKIE: DID ANYONE CHALLENGE YOU ON THIS?
MCCAIN: No … but I get a dozen more or say challenging me on any number of things.
CRIBB: YOU WOULD HAVE BEEN GETTING THESE VIEWS PRESUMABLY AFTER STORIES ON THE CLASS ACTION, WHICH PROMPTED PEOPLE TO E-MAIL YOU?
MCCAIN: No … I try my level best to stay away from that process, and let it evolve on its own. But from time to time, I'm obligated to meet with the lawyers to talk about how to deal with this.
MCKIE: HERE'S THE CONTEXT FOR OUR QUESTION. ROB AND I HAVE BEEN SPEAKING TO A LOT OF PEOPLE DURING THE COURSE OF OUR INVESTIGATION. WE DID A STORY THE OTHER DAY ABOUT RELATIVES WHO WANTED THEIR LOVED ONES TO BE TESTED BECAUSE THEY SUSPECT THEY MAY HAVE LISTERIOSIS … WE'VE SPOKEN TO LAWYERS REPRESENTING PEOPLE WHO HAVE SIGNED ON TO THE CLASS ACTION SUIT … THESE ARE PEOPLE YOU COULD SAY DON'T HAVE LEGITIMATE CLAIMS … THE 'TUMMY ACHE' STUFF … SO THE CONTEXT IS THAT PEOPLE WHO ARE IN THAT CAMP, MIGHT READ SOMETHING LIKE THIS AND SAY, "HEY, WAIT A MINUTE. THAT'S NOT REALLY FAIR." WOULD THEY BE INACCURATE IN REACTING THAT WAY?
MCCAIN: What's not fair?
MCKIE: CASTING DOUBT ON WHETHER THEY WERE ACTUALLY SICK OR JUST OPPORTUNISTS
MCCAIN: I didn't cast any doubt on them. What I said was in principle … those that are truly injured … and have difficulty representing themselves … we have accountability for compensation. What's offensive about that?
MCKIE: I'M NOT SUGGESTING IT WAS OFFENSIVE
MCCAIN: Yes, you were suggesting it was offensive.
MCKIE: ALL I'M SAYING IS THAT YOU DON'T KNOW THAT A CLAIM IS NOT VALID UNTIL THE COURTS DECIDE. BUT YOU'VE MADE A SUGGESTION THAT THERE ARE CLAIMS THAT ARE LEGIMATE AND THERE ARE CLAIMS THAT ARE ILLEGITIMATE
MCCAIN: And you don't think that that's true?
MCKIE: THAT'S NOT FOR ME TO SAY. I'M ASKING YOU HOW YOU WOULD THINK PEOPLE WOULD REACT TO THAT.
MCCAIN: What I'm saying is that the process has a risk of situations where there's no proof of connection on the basis of symptoms as common as the common cold … and in principle only, I find that difficult. Now, I respect the legal process will come to some conclusion as to what's right and what's not … Everything in context here. Everything in context.
MCKIE: BUT YOU DON'T THINK THERE'S ANY RISK IN MISINTERPRETING YOUR COMMENTS ON THE PART OF PEOPLE WHO MIGHT FIND THIS OFFENSIVE?
MCCAIN: What I think is, and I'm just going to repeat myself, David. I've said it a number of times, I believe we have a responsibility and accountability to compensate those who were affected by this and have difficulty representing themselves. I find it difficult to deal with risk where's there's no connection, no proof, solely on the basis of things that are as common as the common cold when those things overshadow the genuine responsibility. People find all different kinds of views either agreeable or not agreeable. That's my point of view. And how others react to that is certainly up to them.
CRIBB: IN THAT SAME MEMO, YOU TALK ABOUT THE MEDIA.
MCCAIN: That's the part I love the most, Rob.
CRIBB: WE HAVE VERY THICK SKIN … IN MEDIA BRIEFINGS … YOU RAISE CONCERNS THAT THE MEDIA IS MORE INTERESTED IN HEADLINES THAN ACCURACY … WHAT'S YOUR GENERAL TAKE ON HOW THIS WHOLE THING HAS BEEN COVERED?
MCCAIN: The frustration was that in the early days … not so much now … there was less of a focus on the genuine science. But beyond that, you express frustrations here in the context of a diary with something that's an intense experience. To sit in front of your colleagues with X number of TV cameras and 30 reporters, it's not an enjoyable experience. I doubt that in the context of a diary, if you were on the other side, I doubt that you would write anything different from this (laughing). Either one of you.
We were hopeful that the science would prevail.… The best example is probably when we found the listeria positive in the facility after three weeks of the initial start up and testing, that when you design your programs to come up with positives, you have a regulatory standard of 20 samples per year — the last known regulatory. We had an in-plant protocol of 3,000 environmental samples. The startup protocol was 104,000. So just put that data in mind: 20, 300 and 104,000. When we found a single positive, one out of 850 to that point, after two weeks or something like that, most of the scientific community would look at that and call it a scientific accomplishment. The single most audited, sanitized, tested, disassembled, re-assembled facility, maybe in the world, comes up with, scientifically, an outstanding result … I don't think it was reported that way.
I think you would share that it was probably reported with a different point of view. And now, to provide total balance, that's the industry, and we'll take accountability to educate. And unfortunately, we found ourselves educating in the middle of this, as opposed to educating well in advance of this. Had we started educating as an industry and government long before this event, maybe the media could have got to the science more quickly.
CRIBB: YOU WERE MAKING THE POINT THAT IT'S IMPORTANT TO EDUCATE THE PUBLIC ABOUT VULNERABILITIES AND THOSE WHO ARE MOST SUSCEPTIBLE, IT WAS RAISED TO A COUPLE OF EXPERTS THAT WE TALKED TO, WHY NOT WHY NOT HAVE MANDATORY LABELLING FOR VULNERABLE POPULATIONS: THE ELDERLY, PREGNANT WOMEN, LIKE WE DO FOR CIGARETTES OR ANY NUMBER OF PRODUCTS
MCCAIN: It's a possibility. Certainly in advance of any step of that nature, we've started putting in listeria information in all the product that's going to institutions like nursing homes … informing them of the risks associated with listeria. We don't have it on our packaging today, but if the industry decides that that's an appropriate thing to do, as I've said consistently, Rob, we will endorse any amount of risk reduction or healthy food management techniques that are deemed to be appropriate for the industry as a whole, as long as it's consistently applied.
CRIBB: ON SEPT. 27 YOU WRITE THE "NEWSPAPERS HAVE BEEN CRAWLING ALL OVER THE AUTHORITIES AT THEIR LEVEL OF OVERSIGHT." CERTAINLY DAVID AND I HAVE DONE A NUMBER OF STORIES LOOKING AT THE SYSTEM AND WHETHER STANDARDS ARE APPROPRIATE. AND YOU SAY "I THINK THAT'S MISGUIDED." BECAUSE LATER, YOU CAME OUT WITH A FIVE-POINT PLAN THAT DID ADVOCATE SOME CHANGES TO THE SYSTEM.
MCCAIN: First of all, you have to understand the context of this statement … It's a little bit like the parent of the kid who comes home with a 90, and the parent says why didn't you get a 95? The reality is … that we have today one of the safest food safety … regulatory frameworks in the world.
The outcomes of listeriosis in Canada, per capita, are as good or better than they are in the United States. The outcomes of listeriosis in Canada are less than half of the major countries in Europe. So I think where the struggle is, Rob, is how do you both defend a good result, but equally have a conviction that we can always get better. The food in Canada is safer than it has ever been in the history of mankind. Why? Because the industry is committed to improving every year.
So what's misguided is a representation is that Canada is not strong or has glaring deficiencies in our food safety system that result in a terrible outcome. The reason it's misguided is because we have an industry in Canada that sells products around the world that depends on that reputation. The jobs, the industries, the communities, they depend, not on a false representation, but a justified representation that our outcomes are really good. If it was appropriate, I totally get it. But to inappropriately step in and characterize something as … not a good outcome to the detriment of that going forward, I've got some concerns about that … How can we take a good system and make it better? We advocated a number of initiatives in … my last press conference. Tighter specificiations on what a good microbiological hazard program should look like. Number two, more time and energy around the three auditing tools to ensure that the auditing tools that the regulator uses are able to consistently evaluate those regulatory processes … in provincial inspections … that's a level of inconsistency that I don't think the consumer today deserves.
The third one, the elimination of provincial regulation in food and meat. And the last one, transparency … that will enhance the performance of the regulatory framework, the industry, and individual operators.
CRIBB: HOW FAR WOULD YOU GO? SHOULD PLANT TEST RESULTS BE MADE PUBLIC?
MCCAIN: I think I would probably leave it at the company level, the plant level. Unfortunately, there are human beings that get affected by that, right.
CRIBB: WHAT ABOUT COMPANY LEVEL?
MCCAIN: I think some level of company transparency would be a good idea. Let's start with transparency around illness performance, right. There are areas where we can invest in the information systems to better track illnesses, everything from the profile of those illnesses, how they unfold in outbreaks. Transparency, Rob … in general is a good thing.
MCKIE: SO WHEN WE TALK ABOUT TRANSPARENCY, WHAT ABOUT POSTING OR MAKING PUBLIC THE ENVIRONMENTAL TEST RESULTS WITHIN CERTAIN PLANTS?
MCCAIN: Again, how far down you go in that, I think is in question because you want to avoid something that can be misinterpreted, right. Because, unfortunately, those test results are highly technical. So I think it needs to be done in a way that accomplishes the goal of systemic improvement, but doesn't lend itself to misinterpretation.
MCKIE: BUT IN PRINCIPLE?
MCCAIN: In principle, we support more transparency in the system at all levels: industry, operator, regulatory. We advocated that, Rob and David, at the press conference.
CRIBB: PREUMABLY ( POSTING TEST RESULTS FROM PROCESSING PLANTS ) IS ACHIEVABLE?
MCCAIN: That's right … I'm hesitant to react to specific suggestions. I would endorse your hypothesis that it's achievable.
ROB: LET ME ASK YOU ABOUT A SPECIFIC REFORM THAT WE WROTE ABOUT. IN THE CASE A POSTIVE LISTERIA TEST, SHOULD THERE BE AN ONUS ON THE PART OF THE COMPANY TO PROACTIVELY INFORM THE CFIA INSPECTOR?
MCCAIN: Whether you inform or not the CFIA, from my perspective, is secondary. Fine, not an issue at all. I'm happy to do that. When an inspector walks into our shop, there's an inspector daily, they have open access to all of our records. So I'm totally okay with that. The more important issue is what does the company do when they get a positive? We have adopted a protocol … it is not a protocol that we had previously, that involves an immediate quarantine of the product itself that's under production, on the second positive, which is consistent with the protocol that exists in the United States. This is the highest and best practice in North America. It's currently in place with FCISS. It's described under FCISS alternative three, which is a sanitation-only food safe procedure for listeria management. And that protocol requires that on the … first positive … that the product's quarantined. On the second positive, we go immediately to product testing.
CRIBB: WHEN DID THIS KICK IN?
MCCAIN: Right after the recall. When we talked about enhanced food safety protocols, that's one of the key features.
Under the old protocol, which was the best in Canada … after the third positive go into product quarantine and testing. We've modified that to go into quarantine on the product on the first positive. And if we get a second positive in quarantine, then we go to product testing.
MCKIE: YOU HAVE PREVIOUSLY MADE THE POINT THAT TO "TEST PRODUCT IS TO DESTROY PRODUCT."
MCCAIN: That's exactly right. As well, though, the product testing that we've built in there … product testing as an underlying an underlying approach for managing listeria, has very poor scientific outcomes because of the very low statistical probability of finding a positive. In fact, the experts would say that it leads you to inappropriate conclusions because it gives you a false sense of security. So the only reason we do that is for validation. You can test at a higher level … we do it as what's described as an N-60, which means you take 60 production samples. It gives you a higher level of confidence. (But) your statistical confidence is still not incredibly high. To apply an N-60 on a day-in day-out basis could be done, as long as it's consistently applied in the industry. I don't think that people, if they looked at it scientifically, would say that that would enhance food safety in general terms. Product testing is a validation, not a control system.
If the Canadian government, Health Canada, advocates any amount of risk reduction that's deemed appropriate we would certainly be aligned with that if it's consistently applied.
But, again, Rob, you'll have a desire to look at that as a potential story, but it's important to understand, while we think those are conservative approaches to this … it's important to recognize that they're outcome with that protocol in place, is the same or higher on listeriosis than what we had in Canada. So what conclusions would you draw out of that, right? Where's the science here? The outcomes in Canada versus the United States, the same or better here. I personally think that's a relevant point.
MCKIE: IS THIS SOMETHING YOU DID OF YOUR OWN VOLITION?
MCCAIN: No, we did it on our own.
MCKIE: DURING THIS PROCESS, YOU HAD MEETINGS WITH THE CANADIAN FOOD INSPECTION AGENCY AND HEALTH CANADA
CRIBB: YOU'VE TALKED A LOT ABOUT TRANSPARENCY. THERE HAS BEEN A DIFFERENCE IN YOUR APPROACH AND THAT OF THE AUTHORITIES: CFIA AND THE PUBLIC HEALTH AGENCY. I WAS WONDERING IF YOU HAVE ANY THOUGHTS ON THEIR APPROACH.
CRIBB: QUESTION ABOUT LATEST QUARTLY RESULT
MCCAIN: The headline in the quarter was obviously the significant implications of the product recall, plus poultry markets, which were not friendly…. offset by the benefits of our restructuring which you saw were described over the last couple of years.
CRIBB: WHAT NOW IN TERMS OF RESTORING PUBLIC CONFIDENCE.
MCCAIN: When we talk to consumers through our polling … there's a very high regard, greater than 90 per cent, for the way we handled the recall and the responsibility that we took. They said notwithstanding that, we need time to recover this confidence. And that's understandable. Having said that, we are seeing week over week, improvement. We need to earn that confidence back over time, with things like continuing to take a leadership role in food safety.
There's some cause for optimism in the more recent polling. I think that the most recent suggested that 80 per cent of the consumers surveyed said that they expected to buy Maple Leaf products in the future. History of other brands in North America that have faced other challenges would indicate that if you do the right thing, in six, nine, maybe 12-month time horizons, that the brand can be recovered.
So what do you guys think? What are you going to write about?