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Maple Leaf Foods -from sickness to sadness

I’m not trying to be funny when I say this, but this incident with Maple Leaf Foods and listeria is making me sick.


August 26, 2008
By Ralph Pearce

 I’m not trying to be funny when I say this, but this incident with Maple Leaf Foods and listeria is making me sick.

   We have a public apology that’s been diminished by YouTube, consumer indifference and cowardice are being expressed in equal doses and now a Montreal lawyer is launching a class action lawsuit under the guise of helping the afflicted.

   What a wonderful world we live in.  And just as I was beginning to feel some Olympic pride.
   It used to be that a crisis brought people together. The BSE outbreak in 2003 actually encouraged people to eat more beef, the power outage in Ontario served to re-introduce neighbours.

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   And now this serves as a reminder of Walkerton, and the realization that amid media frenzy and legal beagles basking in the limelight, we have learned nothing.

   As distressing as this is for those who have suffered losses or the pain imparted by listeriosis, this incident reminds all of us of one truism in life that seems to have been forgotten: There are no guarantees.

   After the Walkerton incident alerted people to the dangers of improperly treated water (and incompetent civic employees and local governments), I attended a public forum in a town north of London, ON.  The mayor, a former producer himself, refused to impose a moratorium on livestock expansions or new barns in response to the events in Walkerton. An angry ratepayer stood up, pointed a finger at the mayor, and said, ‘Then I want you to guarantee me that I won’t get sick by drinking water from my well.’ I wanted to stand up and say, ‘And Mr. Mayor, I then want you to guarantee that same gentleman won’t be struck by lightning or hit by a truck while going for his mail’.

   There are no guarantees in life, folks, and it seems a little convenient -and even a little cowardly -that we’ve forgotten that fact. I don’t believe this listeria outbreak is a product of greed or corporate recklessness; it makes no sense that Maple Leaf Foods would purposely poison consumers at a cost of $20.0 million or more.  And like Walkerton, this listeria incident illustrates that if it hadn’t happened at a processing plant in Toronto, it would have happened somewhere else in Canada. As one agri-food company representative once said to me, it’s amazing that more than 90 million meals are consumed daily in Canada (33 million people, three meals a day for most). Yet when a restaurant in Red Deer or Kitchener is found to be the source of food poisoning where five or 12 people become ill after eating chicken salad, it’s their discomfort that is splashed across local newspapers or on CTV.ca.  The fact that more than 90 million other Canadians dined without incident goes unnoticed -and as such, unreported.

   It is not to say that the pain and suffering of those with listeriosis is minimized, it’s that all of these things need to be kept in perspective. Reviewing the responses of readers, viewers and browsers, it’s distressing to see that some Canadians are so selfish with their opinions. It’s one thing to say ‘I’ll never buy their products again’: the consumer has ultimate power in using their purchasing dollar -and that’s clear.  But to say, ‘I don’t care because I don’t buy processed meats’, smacks of that same convenience and cowardice mind-set. You may not purchase processed meats, but to publicly state that you don’t care what happens to others is ignorant, at the very least.

   There are 23, 000 employees at the Maple Leaf Foods plant in Toronto where the listeria contamination occurred. Given the seriousness of the situation, and the uncertainty of its long-term effects, it’s not impossible that Maple Leaf could be devastated by this crisis.  And those 23,000 that might be thrown out of work in Toronto would be the first of many to lose their livelihoods.  Producers in Ontario that sell their livestock to that plant would have their sales further reduced at a time when cyclically low prices and higher feed costs are causing crippling losses already. Feed and veterinary suppliers, transport and construction companies, and many others would be further hurt by such an eventuality.

  Very few businesses today operate as ‘stand-alones’; they are more connected than ever, and as such, are prone to the up-and-down fortunes of their value chain partners. To say, ‘I don’t care what happens to them’, does more to show a complete lack of compassion than it does any sort of strong-willed determination.

   It’s not a plea for consumers to buy products regardless of risk, it’s a request to keep things in perspective.  It’s easy to dismiss the $20.0 million (and more) that this will cost Maple Leaf as pocket change to a “multi-billion dollar entity”, but again, keeping perspective on the situation, it could cost them much more than any dollar amount tallied by an accountant or imposed by some judge.

   That people claim ‘they don’t care’ or that there is some twisted of justice that it’s happening to Maple Leaf is what I find so sickening -and saddening.