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Maple Leaf Foods president Michael McCain wrote frank, unedited notes and e-mailed them to thousands of employees each week. ((Jeff De Booy/Winnipeg Free Press/Canadian Press))

Weeks before the word listeria became a common term in households across Canada, the company at the centre of an outbreak was struggling with "belt-tightening" amid a "massive change period," according to memos written by the head of Maple Leaf Foods.

In a series of confidential memos obtained by CBC News and the Toronto Star, company president Michael McCain reveals the business had stopped catering internal meetings, asked workers to print double-sided and had put a freeze on hiring as they were "scrubbing [their] budgets."

The memos provide a glimpse behind the scenes during the tumultuous months when the deadly listeriosis outbreak, linked to the company's Toronto plant on Bartor Road, dominated headlines across the country.

For the past decade, McCain has written the frank, unedited notes and e-mailed them to thousands of employees each week, he said in an interview.

To read a samples of Michael McCain's emails, click on the links on the right-hand side of the page. The documents, typically three pages, have been shortened and information (such as routine business matters or company plans for the future) removed.

While mostly filled with details about running the multi-billion dollar company, a major player in the food industry, the notes focus on the listeriosis outbreak over the months of August and September and increase in frequency to several days a week.

At least 20 people have died from a Listeria monocytogenes strain linked to the company's Toronto facility, which prompted the largest food recall in the country's history.

McCain said he first learned of positive tests for listeria on three Sure Slice products on Aug. 16 by way of a phone call from a manager late at night, while at his Georgian Bay cottage.

"My first reaction was, okay, it's unfortunate, disappointing. It happens to all brands," McCain said in an exclusive interview.

At that time, he says he didn't know about any connections to illness.

A day later, the company issued its initial recall of several products — one that would later expand beyond 200.

'No reason to hang our heads'

"You all know how critically important we take food safety throughout our organization," he writes in the Aug. 20 memo to employees. "We have had a breach in that commitment…"

McCain says the company "acted swiftly" to the positive listeria tests, an "isolated incident" limited to two production lines at the Bartor Road facility.

He writes that there are confirmed cases of listeriosis but "so far these cases have not been linked to our products."

As a precaution, the company orders a sweeping recall of products made back to June 2 and announces the closure of the plant for a deep-clean scrub.

The next day, he writes to employees again amid a building media storm as the first listeriosis death becomes public.

"This isn't something we should ever want to be in the news about, but we have no reason to hang our heads — we're doing what is the right thing to do in this situation … acting responsibly and with extraordinary precaution," he writes on Aug. 21.

He stresses that there's no confirmed link to Maple Leaf products, but that public health has confirmed the outbreak's connection to a single DNA pattern.

A day later, McCain admits it "has not been one of the most pleasant weeks in my 30-odd years in the food industry."

Listeria linked to plant

He grumbles about "extensive" media coverage, calling it "most unfortunate" that the pervasiveness of listeria in plants, supermarkets and kitchens isn't being addressed.

But there's hope in the note, with McCain saying he's received "literally hundreds of supportive and inspirational e-mails" in the past few days and quotes an optimistic poem sent by one about refusing to fall down.

On Aug. 23, however, public health officials confirm the link between the listeria strain and Maple Leaf's Bartor Road plant.

"I am deeply saddened to advise you that test results have been returned, and we have been advised the strain of listeria bacteria which caused the illness and death of several consumers matches the listeria strain identified in some Maple Leaf Food products," McCain writes that same day.

"My heart goes out to all those who have become ill and to the families who have lost loved ones," he says. Several days later, he would offer those condolences publicly at a press conference.

Days later, McCain sends a memo questioning the reclassification of some listeriosis-linked deaths, raising the death toll from four to 12.

He calls it "disturbing" that "elderly patients with multiple health challenges" who had listeria in their blood, but whose deaths were not confirmed as directly caused by the bacteria, have been added to the list.

In the interview with the Star and CBC News, McCain defends his comment, saying he never doubted the number of deaths but was simply echoing the opinion of the public health agency's top doctor.

"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 those health challenges," he said in an interview. "They told me they could not necessarily say that it was the listeriosis that was the cause of death."

'Coming out the other side'

September begins to look less grim for the company as listeriosis moves off the front pages of newspapers and the Bartor Road plant gears up to reopen.

"We're coming out the other side of this now," McCain writes on Sept. 6.

Calls to a customer hotline rapidly drop to 600 a day from a peak of 9,000, says McCain. About 50,000 calls from the public came in during the first weeks of the recall alone.

McCain says he's "intensely proud" of how the company handled the outbreak, but singles out an employee for saying "very hurtful things" about Maple Leaf — that the meat slicers hadn't been cleaned in years.

Calling it the "most ridiculous falsification," he says it's "good news" no one pays attention to "bullshit like this."

He says the equipment is cleaned six to eight hours a day with sanitizers, steam and alcohol baths.

Over the next few weeks, the federal election takes the spotlight off Maple Leaf and the company starts to focus on recovery.

More than four weeks after its closure, the Bartor Road facility reopens on Sept. 17.

'Nauseating' class action lawyers

But class action lawyers — who first launched a lawsuit in late August — are on McCain's mind.

The "single most offensive aspect" of the situation, McCain says in a Sept. 19 note, are "nauseating" class action lawyers.

While some claims are legitimate, he acknowledges, others are "outright fraud."

He said they collect outrageous fees to try to extract money on the "faintest, thinnest of claims of so-called emotional stress or illness (tummy ache stuff) without any connection, any proof of connection or having just bought any Maple Leaf product."

McCain writes that he ignored advice from company lawyers telling him to abstain from public comments that could expose Maple Leaf to such lawsuits.

"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,'" he said in the interview. "They counsel people not to take responsibility."

By Sept. 27, three of the Toronto plant's 11 lines have restarted and the company is "recovering quite well from the recall," McCain writes.

"We still have a ways to go, but we are on the right track to recovery," he says.

In the note, he refers to media accounts questioning the level of oversight at meat processing plants, calling them "terribly misguided."

In one of the final memos, he writes about the fact that someone has shared the weekly notes with the media. "Candidly, I don't think that is 'fair ball'… but it is what it is," he writes, vowing to continue writing them.

By then, the memos are back to normal, focusing more on the business of the company and McCain is touting the company's assets —  its "exceptionally strong" business base, excellent cash flow and diversified business.

He notes internal company polling shows over 90 per cent of Canadians have high regard for the way the company dealt with the recall and about 80 per cent said they would buy 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," he told the Star and CBC News.

With files from David McKie