Market food safety at retail so consumers can choose: Not training or technology

Maple Leaf Foods hosted its Sixth Annual Food Safety Symposium last week in Mississauga (that’s in Canada).

hucksterAccording to The Poultry Site, this year’s event was themed ‘People or Technology’, asking participants to debate which was the best investment to make a step change in food safety globally.

Dr. Randy Huffman, SVP Operations and Chief Food Safety Officer at Maple Leaf said, as many do, that food safety as a non-competitive issue and the company actively shares food safety learnings and promotes sharing of information among industry and government groups.

These are the wrong questions and wrong assumptions.

Yes, people need training – ever seen a peer-reviewed paper evaluating the effectiveness of such training?

Yes, new technology does wonderful things and also creates wonderful new opportunites for new bugs because food is a biological system that will always change.

Yes, food safety should not be a competitive issue and information should be shared.

But that’s not marketing at retail.

Any time I say, food safety should be marketed at retail – E. coli counts in spinach, Salmonella in eggs, Listeria in (Maple Leaf) cold cuts, I get told food safety is a non-competitive issue.

But I’m talking about marketing. People say the reason they buy local, organic, natural, sustainable, dolphin-free and hundreds of other categories is primarily because of safety.

market.naturalAs a consumer, I want to know which eggs have a history of low Salmonella counts. The technology exists and is being used to access complete restaurant  inspection reports with smart phones on those A-B-C rating in New York City.

Food safety may be non-competitive, but implementation is altogether different: some companies are better than others. As a parent doing all the grocery shopping, I want to know what companies are better at microbial food safety. As a PhD in food safety, I want to figure out how best to convey meaningful information.

But have your conferences, feel important, and read daily and bear witness to the outrageous levels of microbial food safety failures.

The kind that make people sick.

Same as it ever was: 3 years after listeria in Maple Leaf cold cuts killed 23 Canada still asleep

The Canadian government has fixed food safety.

They said so in a press release.

The person who is inexplicably still – still — Minister of Agriculture in Canada, Gerry-death-by-a-1,000-cold-cuts-Ritz, said tonight, "Food safety is a priority for this Government. We continue to work with consumers, producers, industry and our provincial and territorial partners to ensure that our food safety system remains one of the best in the world."

At least he didn’t say best in the world.

The self-adoration comes as the Government of Canada released its final report to Canadians on the action it has taken to respond to all recommendations by Ms. Sheila Weatherill outlined in the Report of the Independent Investigator into the 2008 Listeriosis Outbreak.

The Maple Leaf listeria-in-cold cuts outbreak that killed 23 people and sickened 55 in 2008. Self-adoration by government and health-types was rampant during the outbreak even though it was a disaster.

The bureaucrats talk about increased surveillance, more money for inspectors, better testing, more information, but provide little in the way of evidence to support the claim they have addressed all of Weatherill’s 57 recommendations.

Weatherill, who zeroed in on a "vacuum in senior leadership" among government officials, directed almost half of her recommendations on preventing another outbreak toward CFIA.

She also focused on the lack of food safety culture amongst health types and Maple Leaf.

"One of the tangible results of the recommendations is that they collectively impress on all stakeholders involved in food safety the need to adopt a culture of continuous improvement," Brian Evans, the government’s chief food safety officer, says in the report.

Not quite.

Culture encompasses the shared values, mores, customary practices, inherited traditions, and prevailing habits of communities. The culture of today’s food system (including its farms, food processing facilities, domestic and international distribution channels, retail outlets, restaurants, and domestic kitchens) is saturated with information but short on behavioral-change insights. Creating a culture of food safety requires application of the best science with the best management and communication systems, including compelling, rapid, relevant, reliable and repeated, multi-linguistic and culturally-sensitive messages.

And where is the compassionate concerned communicator, Michael McCain of Maple Leaf?

Government is fairly hopeless about these food safety things; and it’s not their job. Maple Leaf makes the profit, Maple Leaf product killed and sickened all those people, Maple Leaf should be leaders. Throwing around phrases like food safety culture because it is fashionable doesn’t count. Actions count.

The best food producers, processors, retailers and restaurants will go above and beyond minimal government and auditor standards and sell food safety solutions directly to the public. The best organizations will use their own people to demand ingredients from the best suppliers; use a mixture of encouragement and enforcement to foster a food safety culture; and use technology to be transparent — whether it’s live webcams in the facility or real-time test results on the website — to help restore the shattered trust with the buying public.

And the best cold-cut companies may stop dancing around and tell pregnant women, old people and other immunocompromised folks, don’t eat this food unless it’s heated (watch the cross-contamination though).

Victims of Maple Leaf Foods’ 2008 listeria outbreak still without compensation

Over time, actions are stronger than words.

Maple Leaf honcho Michael McCain may have won platitudes for his risk communication performance during the 2008 listeria-in-deli-meat fiasco that killed 23 and sickened 56 in Canada (not from me), but actions are the true test of words.

Walter Muller got sick from eating Maple Leaf salami in 2008. A year later he received a letter saying he would be compensated for his illness.

He’s still waiting.

"I think they’re waiting for people like me to die before they pay out," says Muller, who turns 69 next week. "There’s no reason why it should take three years to get compensated."

"We are dismayed and frustrated at how long this process has taken, given we paid $25 million to settle these claims almost three years ago," president and CEO Michael McCain said in a statement.

The company said it did everything it could to get money to victims, including contacting premiers to urge their provincial health authorities to reach a settlement.

Among the undisclosed number of claimants to the settlement money are the provincial health authorities, who want a share for their costs in treating people who contracted listeriosis.

"It’s only $750 to them but for me, it’s a big deal. I was hoping it would come in the spring, then in the summer and fall and then maybe in time for Christmas, but that doesn’t look like it will happen," says Muller, a Vancouver resident.

The court-appointed administrator of the settlement fund announced in late November that it has reached an agreement-in-principle with the health authorities on their share of the money. The fund, now estimated around $27 million, has been sitting in a trust as claimants wait for their cheques. No money can be distributed until all claimants have come forward.

For Muller, who got sick with diarrhea and stomach ailments after eating the infected meat, his $750 claim is one of the lowest-ranked. Estates of people who died from complications related to listeriosis are entitled to $120,000.

The byzantine world of government speak; E. coli O157 again in walnuts in Canada

In CFIA-speak, ‘no confirmed illnesses’ means there are sick people, but we can’t say so until we’re super-duper sure through testing, no matter how many more people get sick. It’s part of a disturbing trend where government agencies are pressured to downgrade the findings of epidemiology and rely only on positive test results. It’s on display in the Del Monte vs. Oregon lawsuit, and was on full display in the Maple Leaf listeria outbreak of 2008 that saw 23 people die and 53 others sickened; CFIA led with a press statement then “There have been no confirmed illnesses associated with the consumption of these products.”

So no one should be comforted after the Canadian Food Inspection Agency reported this morning that certain prepackaged raw shelled walnut products described below are being voluntarily recalled because they may be contaminated with E. coli O157:H7.

“There have been no confirmed illnesses associated with the consumption of these products.”


When no one is sick, CFIA says, “there have been no illnesses associated with the consumption of these products.”

It’s the kind of wiggle-room bureaucrats thrive on – and shows the overall importance of public health.

The following raw shelled walnut products, imported from USA and packaged in Canada, are affected by this alert.

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Earlier this year, 14 people were sickened after eating E. coli-contaminated walnuts distributed by Montreal-based Amira Enterprises.

One patient in Quebec with an underlying medical condition died during the outbreak, which also affected people in Ontario and New Brunswick.

Should people over 50 heat cold cuts to avoid listeria?

The risk may be small, but the failures are tragic.

Governments routinely warn that immunocompromised people, including expectant mothers and the elderly, should refrain from certain ready-to-eat refrigerated foods like deli meats and smoked salmon because of the risk of listeriosis.

Elizabeth Weise writes in today’s USA Today that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been saying for at least 11 years now that people over 50 and especially those over 65 should avoid hot dogs, lunch meats, cold cuts and other deli meats unless they are reheated to 165 degrees — "steaming hot" in CDC’s words.

The government also says you shouldn’t keep an open package of sliced deli meat more than five days, all to reduce the risk of infection from a bacteria called listeria. But some question whether the country’s been paying attention.

Barbara Resnick, incoming president of the American Geriatrics Society and a professor of nursing at the University of Maryland, knows of no one over that age who heats deli meats to that level and says she’s never seen a case of listeriosis in a patient.

Neil Gaffney, spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety Inspection Service said, "When it comes to food safety, we’re serious: People at risk for listeriosis should not eat hot dogs, luncheon meats or deli meats unless they are reheated until steaming hot. Thoroughly reheating food can help kill any bacteria that might be present. If you cannot reheat these foods, do not eat them."

Mike Doyle, a professor of food microbiology at the University of Georgia said about 85% of listeriosis cases are linked to cold cuts or deli meats, and that today almost all packaged lunch meats contain either added sodium lactate, an acid formed by fermentation, or potassium lactate, fermented from sugar, as antimicrobials. That’s what he looks for when he buys cold cuts.

And based on FSIS risk-assessment data, meats sliced at the store pose a greater risk than meats pre-sliced at federally inspected establishments

Listeria and cold cuts were ranked just last week as the third worst combination of a food and a pathogen in terms of the burden they place on public health, costing $1.1 billion a year in medical costs and lost work days, according to a study by the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogen Institute.

Douglas Powell a professor of food safety at Kansas State University, said, "And you can’t see, taste or smell that it’s there.”

CDC also says don’t keep opened packages of lunch meat, or meat sliced at the local deli, for longer than three to five days. That’s another one no one pays attention to, says Kansas’ Powell.

"Anecdotally, lots of people keep cold cuts in their refrigerator far longer than they should. People keep them for one to two weeks. That’s the key message. If you get it from the deli counter, four days max."

What wasn’t included in the story is evidence of listeria-related tragedies in other countries – countries that may not have approved those listeria-restraining additives.

Twenty-three elderly people died in Canada in 2008 after eating listeria-laden cold-cuts from Maple Leaf Foods. Later that year, listeria in soft cheese in Quebec led to 38 hospitalizations, of which 13 were pregnant and gave birth prematurely. Two adults died and there were 13 perinatal deaths.

The New South Wales Food Authority said last month the Authority provides information on listeria to pregnant women to allow them to make an informed food choice regarding the risk and how to minimize it. It is not to say that every piece of deli meat has Listeria on it, but some foods have a higher potential rate of contamination than others, and it is better to avoid them.

The risk of acquiring listeriosis is low. However the consequences for a pregnant woman contracting listeriosis are dire.

While the Authority may be accused of ‘being over the top’, we may also be accused of neglecting pregnant women if we did not provide this information so pregnant women could make informed choices in what they eat.

Over the last 5 years in Australia there have been between 4 and 14 cases of listeriosis diagnosed in pregnant women or their babies each year. These infections have resulted in the deaths of 8 fetuses or newborn babies.

Canadian government about to be toppled bolsters food inspection

One of the reasons I largely ignore political chatter is the meaningless of it all.

The Conservative minority government unveiled its budget this afternoon and pledged to boost spending on Canada’s food inspection system by $100 million over the next five years.

The additional money for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency is needed to fix problems flagged in 2009 in the wake of a deadly listeriosis outbreak, the government said.

Independent investigator Sheila Weatherill identified a series of food-safety gaps in Canada — including a void in leadership within the federal government — that helped contribute to a listeriosis outbreak in 2008 that left 22 Canadians dead.

They had all consumed tainted deli meats produced at a federally inspected plant in Toronto, operated by Maple Leaf Foods.

But the three opposition parties in the British-style Parliamentary system are all saying, the budget sucks, so let’s have yet another election.

Canadian bureaucrats shirked ‘duty to assist’ with listeria information request

The 2008 listeria outbreak in Canada caused by Maple Leaf deli meats that killed 23 and sickened 56 was characterized by multiple failures amongst multiple players – primarily Maple Leaf, the Canadian government, and dieticians at assisted-care facilities.

A few journalists tried to peel back the layers of palp but were often stonewalled. Yesterday, the federal information czar chastised the department that serves the Prime Minister for shirking its duty to assist The Canadian Press with an access-to-information request seeking files on the listeriosis outbreak.

The staff of Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault, an ombudsman for users of the access law, took more than two years to rule on the news agency’s complaint.

The listeriosis matter dates back to an October 2008 request for all transcripts and minutes of conference calls in the previous two months on the health crisis.

Four months later, the Privy Council Office decided the records it possessed did not fall under the request because they were handwritten notes, not formal minutes or transcripts.

The information commissioner disagreed, and asked the PCO to process the notes.

The handwritten notes were not released to The Canadian Press until February this year — 28 months after the original access request was made.

Glacial government: CFIA still implementing recommendations from 2008 listeria outbreak

On Aug. 17, 2008, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and Maple Leaf Foods, Inc. finally got around to telling Canadians they should avoid serving or consuming certain brands of deli meat as the products could be contaminated with L. monocytogenes. In the end, 23 deaths and 57 cases of listeriosis were linked to contaminated cold-cuts made by Maple Leaf.

In July 2009, investigator Sheila Weatherill who was appointed directly by the Canadian Prime Minister, issued a 181-page final report about the listeria crapfest, with 57 recommendations grouped into four broad categories:

- more focus on food safety among senior officials in both the public and private sectors;

- better preparedness for dealing with a serious foodborne illness with more advance planning for an emergency response;

- a greater sense of urgency if another foodborne emergency occurs; and,

- clearer communications with the Canadian public about listeriosis and
other foodborne illnesses, especially at risk populations and health professionals.


On Oct. 21, 2010, CFIA issued a couple of public reports, responding to the Weatherill report, all this over two-years after people starting barfing and dying from Maple Leaf meats. Buried within the bureaucratese are a few nuggets that show Canadian food safety types are trying to say the right thing – but really don’t get it.

Most of the media coverage focused on meat inspection protocols and complaints by the union of too few inspectors. There’s this big debate about who needs to do what and whether the federally-mandated Compliance Verification System (CVS), which sets out the procedures to be used by inspectors to verify the design and implementation of a plant’s food safety plan, is any good.

However, within the Oct. 2010 food safety progress report, the feds are apparently trying to come up with guidance on when to go public about food safety risks.

Health Canada is developing a federal guidance document on the weight of evidence needed to take action to protect consumers during foodborne illness outbreak investigations. The weight of evidence takes into consideration the microbiological information gathered through food sample testing and human illness reports, as well as the information collected from the follow-up investigation at food processing plants. Federal, provincial and territorial partners have been consulted on the draft guidance document. Health Canada also shared the document with selected international counterparts in June 2010. Once finalized, the document will be used by Health Canada, CFIA and PHAC during outbreak investigations.”

I look forward to the public availability of such a document, 14 years after the feds were criticized for the erroneous implication of California strawberries rather than Guatemalan raspberries as the source of a 1996 North America-wide cyclospora outbreak.

The Weatherill Report makes a number of recommendations to improve communication between government and the public on food safety and foodborne illness. The Government has taken steps to improve how and when it communicates with Canadians in general and with at-risk populations and key stakeholders, specifically. These steps take into consideration how it communicates food safety information in periods when there is no outbreak as well as during a national foodborne illness event.

In February 2010, the Government of Canada launched an online Food Safety Portal that offers a one-stop source for information about food safety and foodborne illness ( The food safety and foodborne illness information initiatives developed by CFIA, PHAC and Health Canada and described in this report can now be found on the Portal.

To raise awareness of the Food Safety Portal, CFIA sent out a social media news release that encourages individuals to share information about the Portal online by using social media book-marking and tagging options, thus ensuring the broadest possible outreach.

CFIA has also been using social media tools, such as Twitter, to reach a wider audience on food safety issues and recalls. The Agency has gained over 400 followers on Twitter, including representatives from the media, health organizations, consumer groups and cooking/food allergy bloggers. In addition, CFIA has developed a recall widget to automate further distribution of notices. Food safety stakeholders have been invited to embed the CFIA widget on their websites, blogs, or social media pages to display live content from CFIA on food recalls.

The Consumer Centre section of the CFIA website has also been redesigned to clearly explain the roles that consumers, government and industry play in food safety, and to provide more information on important food safety issues. In addition, CFIA is participating in six food-related events between May 2010 and March 2011 to promote the Food Safety Portal and raise awareness of safe food handling practices and recall procedures.

And it goes on and on.

Creating a new web site doesn’t mean anyone reads it. And using social media is of no use if the messages still suck. People dying from deli meat is not a food handling concern.

PHAC has developed a risk communications strategy that will guide how the Agency communicates to Canadians during a national foodborne illness outbreak. PHAC has begun to implement various components of the strategy so that it can communicate to the public, key stakeholders, and targeted at-risk populations (older adults, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems) more effectively. The strategy uses a variety of traditional and innovative formats, such as media events, web- and audio-casts, the Food Safety Portal, and stakeholder briefings. PHAC also collaborates with Health Canada to ensure that PHAC’s information for Canadians during a national outbreak is consistent with the food safety information that Health Canada provides.

There’s more but it’s tortuous. No evaluation of effectiveness, no indication that fewer people are barfing, no evidence that dieticians at care facilities won’t keep giving out cold deli meats to at-risk populations, no evidence that medical types at place like the Toronto Hospital for Sick Kids won’t keep dispensening stupid advice about listeria risks to pregnant women.

And for all the bureaucratese, no mention was made by anybody about Weatherill’s recommendation for precautionary labeling – warning labels – for listeria-vulnerable populations like pregnant women and old folks.

There must have been hundreds of fully salaried government types at all the meetings and in the report prep and website building and travel.
Maple Leaf or any other processor, government can continue to dither, you’re the ones losing customers and profits.

Make listeria testing results publicly available, and put warning labels or some sort of information available on the package. And stop saying deli meat is a consumer handling problem.

Waiting for government is like waiting for Godot.

Sol Erdozain: Food is a culture thing

Sol Erdozain writes:

Canyons Burger Co. is apparently a hamburger chain with a “culture centered on an active lifestyle,” advocating outdoor activities such as hiking and mountain biking.

They say it’s a company culture thing.

Moe’s Southwest Grill restaurants inspire clients to “be different” and encourage creativity and openness among employees.

That’s their culture thing.

Elevation Burger is all about organic ingredients and “doing good.”

It’s great that all these food chains are trying to bring something more to the table than just food; as long as it’s not foodborne pathogens and bacteria.

Maple Leaf Foods from Canada came out with a food safety pledge this year and advertised it through all sorts of outlets to try and clean up their image after a listeria outbreak in 2008. They vow that their company culture is all about food safety now. Maple Leaf said they had a culture of food safety before the 2008 outbreak, but that now they really have one.

Hopefully it won’t take an outbreak for these other food chains to incorporate food safety into their cultures.

Maple Leaf CEO: get your butt off that kitchen counter, someone may make food there

I don’t let cats or dogs or lizards on my food prep area, and I don’t let anyone plant their behind on my food prep area – who knows where that behind has been.

That’s what I took away from Maple Leaf Foods latest attempt to woo wary customers back to their delicious deli flavor.

Maple Leaf CEO Michael McCain and some other food safety types from the company hosted a dine and lecture for bloggers on May 27 in the Toronto area, to update would-be social media leaders to go forth with the food safety crusade that has taken over Maple Leaf since the 2008 listeria outbreak which killed 22 people.

A number of bloggers have written about this event. They talk about the sweet food, the sincerity of the Maple Leaf types and the super swag. No one raised any hard questions like:

• why did Maple Leaf wait so long to issue a public recall of its killer products in 2008 when epidemiology clearly implicated the product;
• why aren’t listeria test results in Maple Leaf plants made public;
• why aren’t there warning labels on deli meats for at-risk populations, like pregnant women and all those old people that unnecessarily died; and,
• why aren’t Maple Leaf’s food safety efforts marketed at retail so consumers can choose?

Other companies that want to lead are already working in these areas, rather than wining and dining trendy bloggers.

In the U.S., Beef Products Inc. is figuring out how to make all its E. coli tests public, and Cargill is expanding the use of video in its slaughterhouses to enhance animal welfare and food safety.

The Publix supermarket chain in the southeast already labels its deli products to say,

“The Publix Deli is committed to the highest quality fresh cold cuts & cheeses.? Therefore we recommend all cold cuts are best if used within three days of purchase.? And all cheese items are best if used within four days of purchase.”

And not one of the bloggers mentioned, OMG, did you see that those nurses and doctors at Toronto Sick Kid’s hospital said pregnant women can eat all the cold-cuts and raw seafood they want, listeria’s not such a big deal after all.

But all I take away from reading all the blogs is this pic: dude, get your butt off the food prep area.