CANADA: The testing of Michael McCain
Globe and Mail
On Saturday, Aug. 23, the head-office lobby of Maple Leaf Foods in midtown Toronto
should have been quiet-it was, after all, the middle of a sleepy summer weekend.
Instead, the air was electric, the scene tumultuous. Maple Leaf, Canada's largest
meat company, was facing the most serious crisis of its 100-year-plus history. It
had been confirmed: Packaged meat from its Toronto plant was killing people.
It was the nightmare scenario for any consumer-products company. Maple Leaf's crisis
plan was duly put into play. A camera crew was dispatched to the office lobby, where
president and CEO Michael McCain, tall, lean and attired in an open-neck blue shirt
with a white undershirt, taped a televised statement.
After announcing that he had closed down the plant and ordered a recall of its
products, a grim-looking McCain apologized and expressed his sympathy for the
victims of the nationwide listeriosis outbreak. He followed up with a press
conference the next day. "Going through the crisis, there are two advisers I've paid
no attention to," he told reporters. "The first are the lawyers, and the second are
the accountants. It's not about money or legal liability-this is about our being
accountable for providing consumers with safe food."
McCain's appearances and statements seemed perfectly natural to the public. To
crisis management experts, they appeared to be expertly crafted. The contrite
message resonated so strongly in public opinion that even as the number of deaths
caused by listeriosis mounted and the entire Canadian food safety system came under
attack, McCain seemed insulated by his statement that "the buck stops here." His
sad, sober visage became standard fare on the evening news, on YouTube and in
newspaper photos. He emerged as the human face of a company that cared about its
Yet, when I met McCain in the fall, he made it clear he did not want to talk about
himself, only about "the team." He refused to even call what he had done "crisis
management." It was simply doing what was right; and doing what was right came
directly from the company's ingrained values. "This is not about some contrived
strategy," McCain said. "It's just about a tragic situation and an organization's
desire to make it right." He insisted he could not even remember who had written the
compelling words in the public statements-although Maple Leaf insiders say that the
CEO's hand was in every deed and every word. "The core principle here was to first
do what's in the interest of public health, and second to be open and transparent in
taking accountability," McCain told me. "For the team, this was almost not a
decision-it was obvious. It's just what we are."
The feature is a long story retelling McCain's history at Maple Leaf and goes on to
say that on Aug. 7, 2008, one of its distributors told Maple Leaf that a public
health inquiry into some Maple Leaf brand meat products was in the works. Five days
later, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency informed Maple Leaf that it had launched
a formal investigation into three products from its Toronto meat plant. As the CFIA
investigation got under way, Maple Leaf told its distributors to segregate the
affected food. This was standard practice, and the news did not travel to the chief
But McCain became entirely involved at about 10:30 on the evening of Saturday, Aug.
16, when he received a call at his cottage north of Toronto: The CFIA had confirmed
the presence of listeria monocytogenes in two of its sliced meat products.
Immediately, the identified product lines were recalled, and a press release to that
effect was issued.
The following Tuesday, McCain was informed that the investigation had found more
positive tests. Thus, the recall was widened. At that point, McCain says, "we didn't
know what the nature of that investigation was, other than a) there was illness
involved; b) there was possible death involved, a loss of life; and c) there was a
possibility of a linkage to one of these items we had recalled."
Then came that fateful day of Aug. 23, when the possibility turned into reality. DNA
linkage was established between some of the affected individuals and the two
products. Maple Leaf launched a recall of 191 products, closed down the Toronto
plant, unleashed its mass communication campaign and made its CEO accessible to the
Christine Pearson, a crisis management specialist at Thunderbird School of Global
Management in Phoenix. says Maple Leaf's apology and accountability were up to the
standards of the best reputation management she has ever seen, including Johnson &
Johnson's response to the Tylenol tampering that killed seven people in the Chicago
area in 1982. In Maple Leaf's case, "the communications piece seemed to me to be
high-end boilerplate. He was doing all the right things-it was really good," says
Pearson, who has taught at the Ivey School.
If Pearson has one nagging concern, it is whether the company moved fast enough in
alerting consumers of the crisis. "Compared with companies I had worked with in the
United States, too much time passed before they acted, and I think that still plays
out as a problem for the company that is going to plague them for some time."
On the charge of being late in responding, McCain says it is simply unfounded: "When
you look back through the timeline and how the normal process works, that is not a
reasonable conclusion." He insists that CFIA product reviews are routine and
constant. The agency only requires a recall when there is a positive test result; it
wouldn't have made sense to warn the public at the first notice of an inquiry. Maple
Leaf, he says, actually goes beyond standard practice by informing distributors of
an investigation, and asking them to isolate affected products. And Maple Leaf,
along with its retail partners, acted "with lightning speed," he says, at the moment
it found there was a positive test on Aug. 16.
McCain believes his broader challenge is to educate the public on listeria, which,
he points out, "is ubiquitous in our environment. All Canadians are exposed to it on
a fairly routine basis, and it's benign to the masses. Unfortunately, it is very
dangerous to a few." (Those few are the immune-compromised, the elderly, pregnant
women and newborns.) For McCain, the issue is more about risk management than the
potential for totally eradicating listeria. "It is still our challenge to reduce
that risk, but this is one of the oldest living bacteria in mankind, and because of
that, it's impossible to eradicate it."
That is a very hard argument to sell to a public shaken by a toll of known deaths
that stands at 20 as of early November, alongside a larger number of illnesses. The
friends, rel-atives and neighbours of the victims will be unimpressed to hear that
listeria is a fact of life in the food system.