Heightened food safety concerns have forever changed the way the meat and poultry sector does business
Two years ago, Marc Lafontaine and Yannick Gervais were at a crossroads. Partners in one of Quebec’s oldest and largest sausage-making firms – Charcutérie La Fernandière, a Trois-Rivières company that Gervais’ grandfather founded in 1948 – they were faced with a shortage of space due to the rise in consumer demand for fresh product.
After much soul searching, the pair decided to drop the company’s line of high-quality cooked products – including ragout, creton (spicy pork pâté) and boudin (blood pudding) – and open a second line of fresh sausages. According to Lafontaine, falling demand for cooked products was part of the reason. But fear of having to deal with a Listeria outbreak in the aftermath of the Maple Leaf Foods crisis, which had occurred a few months earlier in August 2008, also weighed in the balance.
“We thought that if we had a problem – or even somebody in the sector had a problem – our whole business would take a hit, not just our cooked products,” recalls Lafontaine. Two years later, sales of fresh product are up by more than half at supermarkets across the province, adding twice as much to the company’s bottom line as cooked product did. “We have no regrets,” says Lafontaine. “We made a sound business decision.”
Food safety, of course, has always been a top-of-mind concern for companies big and small across the Canadian food industry. In recent years, however several high-profile recalls and deadly food-related outbreaks have heightened scrutiny by government, media and consumers alike, pushing food safety to the very top of the priority list for many food companies. And nowhere has that been more evident – and resulted in more changes in processing and retailing practices – as in the meat and poultry industries.
“The Maple Leaf event has definitely changed things,” says Jim Laws, executive director of the Canadian Meat Council (CMC), a national trade association of federally inspected meat packing and processing companies that account for roughly 95 per cent of Canada’s meat supply. “There is so much focus now on food safety [and] awareness all around – from meat packers to equipment suppliers – on the critical importance of this issue to the health of individual businesses and to our industry as a whole.”
According to Laws, Canada has long been a world leader when it comes to food safety. He notes, for example, that there are “very few” incidents of sickness in a country where an estimated 100 million meals are consumed every day, roughly two-thirds of which contain meat products. Laws credits tough government regulations, experienced food companies and “a good cold chain supply” for that envious track record. “But no system is perfect,” adds Laws, “as the Maple Leaf incident clearly shows.”
Since then, he says, stakeholders across the industry have individually and collectively determined efforts to meet the food safety challenge head on. For example, the CMC’s board of directors, which includes top executives from many of the country’s biggest meat packers and processors, has made food safety a non-competitive issue akin to animal welfare. “An event that affects one member affects everyone,” says Laws.
He adds that the CMC also pushed for the federal Accelerated Cost Allowance, a measure passed last year that allows food companies to write off the purchase of new processing equipment with food safety enhancement features like easier cleaning. Together with the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, the CMC also now offers regular Listeria workshops, and has added new appendages like a technical committee made up of food company workers involved with safety issues.
“It provides them with an opportunity to meet their colleagues from across the industry and share things they’ve learned,” says Laws. That’s doubly important, he adds, in an industry where the vast majority of companies are family owned operations that operate according to time-honoured production methods, equipment and/or protocols that may require updating.
Laws says many food companies have made changes to their processing procedures in an effort to lower the risk of contamination since 2008. “Some companies now have spare [motors and moving parts] for their slicers and change them in order to clean them more effectively,” he points out. “And a lot more companies are testing and holding everything [and] doing voluntary recalls.”
That heightened interest in food safety hasn’t gone unnoticed by industry experts like Domenic Pedulla, an Alberta food safety specialist who owns the Canadian Food Safety Group, a Calgary-based company that does safety audits, among other things, of processors and food companies eager to meet compliance standards in order to supply food stores and the service industry. “Food safety is a reactionary thing,” says Pedulla. “Ten years ago, not many companies wanted to get audited. But it’s the big thing since the Maple Leaf crisis and the food tampering scares we’ve had here.”
Such incidents, says Pedulla, lead to spikes in calls from journalists, consumers and store and restaurant owners eager to learn how to either prevent food from becoming contaminated or protect it from tampering “short of putting everything behind glass counters.” However, Pedulla notes that many food companies, particularly those that produce, sell and handle cooked meat products, “are quite forward looking. They are doing everything they can to make their products as safe as possible. That’s an admirable goal, and that approach helps make [Canada] a world leader in the field.”
When it comes to meat processing in this country, however, no company has done more to improve safety than Maple Leaf Foods. In the aftermath of the Listeria crisis in August 2008, the multinational, Toronto-based food giant made a commitment to become a global leader in food safety. And by any standard, the scope and the breadth of the changes it has implemented since then have been breathtaking.
Based on the solemn “Food Safety Pledge” that president and CEO Michael McCain made on behalf of the company’s 22,500 employees, Maple Leaf Foods has revamped everything from its manufacturing and production methods to sanitation and testing practices. “We are on a never-ending journey to make safe and great-tasting food for consumers,” says the company’s chief food safety officer Randy Huffman.
A Shared Lesson
An American food science expert who was president of the American Meat Institute for 10 years before joining Maple Leaf Foods in 2009, Huffman has overseen and, in many cases, initiated the actions contained in the five elements that make up the company’s food safety strategy: creating a high-performing food safety organization; proactively mitigating risks; unifying the food safety management system; driving supply chain alignment; and leading the industry to higher standards.
According to Huffman, those actions and strategies are based on the results of the “holistic view” that was taken of both internal and external processes to identify “what we did well [and] the gaps.” The result has been what he describes as a “cross functional engagement” that both recognizes and emphasizes the importance that all employees play in regards to food safety. “We’ve found it hard to find a functional part of the company that isn’t a critical part of our success,” he says.
Huffman adds that the traumatic events of August 2008 made company employees at all levels both open and eager to implement sweeping changes that have standardized production practices across all business units and improved sharing and learning between 60 manufacturing sites in several regions and countries. “It dramatically heightened awareness that what we were doing before then wasn’t good enough,” he says. “There has been commitment from top to bottom.”
That’s why, he says, Maple Leaf Foods is now eager to share what its learned – like the development of a five-page, tent-steam protocol for the cleaning of meat slicers, which are notoriously difficult to clean – by reaching out and offering its expertise to competitors that are affected by recalls. “We don’t always get a response, but the offer is there,” says Huffman. “In a commodity sector like prepared meats, food safety shouldn’t be treated as a competitive issue. It’s in all of our interests to avoid problems because when we have them the whole sector gets hit.”