BETWEEN a mediocre federal agriculture minister and a fumbling food giant, Canadians have been exceptionally ill-served during the current outbreak of E. coli that originated in a mega-meat-processing plant in Alberta.
So far, the consequences of government and corporate mismanagement of the situation have not been fatal. Although 11 Canadians in various provinces have taken ill, we are a far cry from the Listeria outbreak of 2008 when tainted luncheon meat from an Ontario factory killed 22 consumers and sickened 35 others.
Two things were widely remarked upon during that crisis. First were the earnest efforts by Maple Leaf Foods and its CEO, Michael McCain, to behave like responsible — and responsive — corporate citizens. Second was the disastrous leadership of Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz who got caught cracking jokes about the outbreak in a conference call with scientists.
This time around, we are still stuck with Mr. Ritz, who should have been shuffled out of cabinet years ago. Worse yet, the corporate entity involved, XL Foods, has failed to seize the bull by the horns, à la Maple Leaf. Instead of being proactive in word and deed, XL Foods has engaged in foot-dragging and wagon-circling. Its idea of crisis management is to record a platitude about taking “full responsibility” on its answering machine, instead of putting an engaged executive front and centre.
Meanwhile, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, under Mr. Ritz’s watch, allowed the mega-facility to keep churning out products for three weeks after the E. coli red flag was first raised, despite the fact the company was barely co-operative in providing information and not even following its own protocols.