Michael McCain isn’t waiting for the federal government to solve his listeria problem. While bureaucrats in Ottawa continue to draft a set of revamped guidelines for the entire ready-to-eat food industry, the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Foods has already announced a long list of safety enhancements that he hopes will lower the odds of another deadly outbreak—and reassure rattled shoppers.
McCain had no choice, really. His cold cuts killed 20 people, sickened countless others, and sliced millions of dollars from the company’s bottom line. Yet there is a sad, unspoken irony in McCain’s proactive approach. Despite this summer’s tragedy, his staff consistently exceeded every standard demanded by Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA). And whatever new protocols the feds unveil in the coming weeks, it’s a safe bet that Maple Leaf is already a few steps ahead of them. “This is where it’s frustrating,” McCain said in a recent interview. “We were in compliance.”
As our recent cover story explained, the never-ending fight against Listeria monocytogenes is an imperfect, ever-evolving science that offers no guarantees. It may seem shocking, but testing the actual meat is not the answer. Scientists learned long ago that the most effective way to battle the bug is to find it in the factory and kill it at the source—before it ends up in your food.
McCain understands that, and every promise he has made in the wake of the outbreak revolves around improved environmental sampling. He wants to double the amount of swabs collected from his factories. He wants to build a database that will record the results and catch any disturbing trends. And if lab tests reveal listeria on a food-contact surface (a conveyor belt, for example), he promises to automatically quarantine the meat produced on that line while the machine is cleaned and re-tested. Few other food companies—if any—have adopted such rigorous safeguards.
Last week, McCain did something else that none of his competitors can claim: he hired a Chief Food Safety Officer.
Randall Huffman, an American microbiologist, has been lured north to fill this unique post. A Ph.D. in Meat and Animal Science, Huffman is highly respected among experts who spend their days tackling listeria. But as qualified as he is, there is another reason why Huffman is the perfect choice for Maple Leaf Foods: he has spent the past eight years as a senior official with the American Meat Institute (AMI) Foundation, the research arm of the industry’s leading trade organization. AMI lobbies on behalf of more than 600 meat companies, including Maple Leaf, and Huffman has always been a vocal advocate for more self-regulation. Though fully committed to customer safety, he believes that the industry—not the government—is in the best position to provide it. “There is a role for government to play as the overseer of the system,” he said last month, during a series of interviews with Maclean’s. “But at the end of the day, industry makes safe food every day.”
Many, including the union that represents federal food inspectors, have blamed deregulation for the Maple Leaf fiasco. Three years ago, the CFIA stopped conducting its own environmental sampling at ready-to-eat meat factories, and although government inspectors routinely audit a company’s internal results, a positive sample on a food-contact surface did not have to be immediately reported to the feds. After the outbreak, however, the agency issued a temporary rule that compels everyone, Maple Leaf included, to alert the local inspector right away if a surface tests positive for listeria. Time will tell if that directive becomes permanent, but Huffman’s position is clear: the rule is “overkill.”
“What the CFIA is doing is partially a reaction to the situation, and probably understandable,” he said. “But I think they’ll learn from it and realize that reaction should only take place under certain conditions. What should send bells and whistles off is when there are multiple positives, repeated positives, without appropriate corrective action by the plant. That’s where government needs to focus. If you overreact to every positive, you’re going to send a disincentive to the system to make sure you always find negatives. We don’t want that.”
Huffman is not alone in that belief. The goal of an environmental sampling program is to locate listeria and destroy it, and many other experts worry that a regulatory regime that is too proscriptive may actually encourage the opposite. A company, after all, can easily set up a sampling plan that finds nothing—escaping the wrath of government inspectors, but tricking itself into a false sense of security. “If a company is operating with zero positives in their environmental testing, they’re not looking hard enough,” Huffman said. “The objective is to find positives, and the response to that positive really needs to take into account a lot of factors.” Is it an isolated positive? Have other positive samples recently been collected from the same location? Is it sporadic contamination, or a sign of something much bigger? “The way a company responds, and the way the government should respond, really must be dealt with in a flexible way and in a way that allows the use of all the data that is available,” Huffman said. “If I get one, I don’t shut the line down. I don’t shut the plant down. I investigate, I try to find out where it came from, and make sure I don’t have repeated positives.”
When asked if every company can be trusted to do the right thing, Huffman said “the majority are. I can’t tell you if all are. All I can tell you is that from the U.S. perspective, there has been remarkable improvement over the last 10 years.”
That’s true. Confirmed cases of listeriosis, the flu-like infection caused by Listeria monocytogenes, are in steady decline. In the U.S., the bacteria infects just 2.7 out of every one million people; in Canada, there are only 60 cases a year. Levels of listeria found on grocery store shelves are also decreasing. In 2000, a random sample of U.S. meat products found L. mono in 0.89 per cent; in 2006, it was 0.77 per cent. “There is risk in everything we do, food consumption included,” said Huffman, who begins his new job in January. “I think eliminating every case of food-borne listeriosis is not a realistic goal, but lowering the risk and potentially eliminating the possibility of major outbreaks is a realistic goal we can achieve.”