Saturday 5 June 2010

An evening of food, fun and tough questions.

Last week I attended a Maple Leaf Foods roundtable event I had been invited to. Maple Leaf Foods reached out to bloggers via Matchstick. The invitation was for "an opportunity for you to learn about that commitment [to food safety], and to ask questions directly of Maple Leaf executives, including Michael McCain, and food safety experts who will also attend." I was intrigued. How often to you get to ask questions directly to the President and CEO of such a large company? And I looked at as a great opportunity to mingle and get to know some others bloggers and people I've gotten to know via Twitter (which is completely awesome, by the way.)

We started the evening by mingling - and munching on yummy appetizers such as Natural Selections turkey - in the lobby the ThinkFOOD! Innovation centre.

That's also where Michael McCain and Sharon Beals (Senior VP, Food Safety & Quality Assurance) came around and introduced themselves to every one of us. Simple, but impressive touch.

We then moved into another room for the talks, a Q&A session and some food (really good food!)

The cynical side of me figured I was in for an evening of spin and great-sounding promises. The trusting side of me hoped I would hear some real human beings speaking from their heart.

So, why did Maple Leaf Foods even hold this event? Was it to use to blogging community to market for them, get the word out that they're doing everything they can to make sure the tragedy of August 2008 does not repeat itself? Or was it to have the opportunity to genuinely reach out to the people whose lives they affect on a day-to-day basis with their products?

Why does Maple Leaf Foods want to make sure another tragedy does not happen? Is it because they know as a company they would be pretty much decimated? Or is it because they truly, on a basic human level, are heartsick that they were the cause and are doing everything in their power to make sure something like that never happens again?

I think the answers to those questions are ALL yes. Of course the president and executive want to protect the interest of the company. They have to. That's their job. They lost a lot of money because of the listeriosis outbreak, and of course, their reputation was shaken. However, after having seen Michael McCain and Sharon Beals speak that night, I truly believe what they said came from the heart, too. When it came to food safety, it wasn't about spinning the events. They stood there and took full responsibilty for what happened. Period. Michael McCain simply said, "My only wish is that I knew then what I know today."

Now, what are they doing about it? You can take a look at their food safety pledge here. They brought on some key staff, such as Ms Beals, and Chief Food Safety Officer, Dr Randy Huffman. They've put $20 million into upgrades - and they will continue to as technologies improve - to enhance their ability to win the war in food safety.

And it is a continuous battle. Listeria is everywhere. It's likely in your house right now. What we all need to do is make sure it doesn't end up in our bodies.

Mr McCain states food safety is a daily process and discipline that is constantly being refined - he called it a journey of improvement. He also wanted to note that "it is impossible to commit to perfection. It can't be done. The pledge states we are committed to do everything we can and we are committed to excellence."

So, what are they doing to show they are committed to excellence? They are not only complying with the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency) but measuring performance against the standards set out by the GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative).

Ms Beals stated they had performed 124,782 listeria tests last year. As mentioned earlier, "listeria is everywhere. Our job [at Maple Leaf Foods] is to make sure it doesn't get into the plant. If it does, we make sure it doesn't get into the food." They hold DAILY meetings at 8:30am about tests.

They also understand it's not just about the executive. Ms Beals said, "If the guy on the shop floor doesn't get it... We're only as strong as our weakest link." To ensure there are no weak links, they have innovative, interactive training sessions and their education is ongoing.

And I love Sharon Beals because she said, "That's not how we roll." Awesome.

I was convinced they are committed to food safety. Where it got a little 'spinny' for me was when things such as nitrates in food were brought up. I don't know enough about nitrates to comment on the subject, but the answers we got about nitrates being naturally occuring (which is true - in things such as spinach) didn't sit quite right with me.

Maple Leaf Foods has an incredible opporunity to really be pioneers in healthy food choices. I believe if they take a contrarian approach and get truly transparent with what's in their products - giving us the choice to eat the traditional foods with all the probably-really-bad-for-us crap in it or the stuff with only ingredients you actually recongnize - they can shift the perception of their being 'just a corporation' to truly being advocates for a healthier lifestyle and helping us live longer, higher-quality lives. Being who they are and the power they wield as such a large corporation, I think, gives them the responsibility to push for better, healthier conditions right from the start - way before the meat gets to their plants. They were grilled on this a bit by Maureen of Wee Welcome (nicely played, Maureen.)

One thing that truly impressed me was they gave us their material on a stick instead of folders with a bunch of paper. I think that speaks volumes about their company culture.

Of course we can't just leave it up to corporations and everybody else to control our safety. What can we do?

When you grocery shop, what is your pattern? Perimeter first? Produce, then maybe meat and cheese and such? The refrigerated section close to the beginning right? Well... food is refrigerated for a reason. The less time it's out the better. I know I'm guilty of that. I know I'll be changing that.

Where do you put your meat in the fridge? Always at the bottom? Sometimes above other food? That's a no-no. Raw meat should never be above anything else. It can drip and contaminate the other things in the fridge.

One of the positive things to come out of the H1N1 hype was the hightened awareness of simple things such as handwashing.

For more on what you can do, check out the food safety at home checklist.

Do I feel confident feeding my family Maple Leaf products? Yessir. Here is the chicken we were given to take home. Jean-Paul prepared a lovely dinner around it a few days later.

And since you've stuck with me this long, I have a giveaway for you. Along with the bag we were all given as bloggers, we were also given a bag of goodies to pass along.

This pack includes:
thermal bag (great for bringing home those refrigerated and frozen grocery items)
meat thermometer
2 packs of 'half-baked' bread
coupons to try some of their products that we got to eat at the roundtable event.

**To be eligible to this giveaway you must live in Canada.

Contest closes on Friday, June 11 at midnight and the winner will be announced and contacted by Monday, June 14 at the lastest. If you have not left an email with your comment, please check back to see if you've won. If it is a tweet that is the winner, that person will be contacted via Twitter. The winner will be posted both on Twitter and as a comment on this blog post.

The winner will be chosen at random using's true random number generator. Each comment will be numbered, as will the eligible tweets.

To participate:

Follow me on Twitter @JackiYo and tweet what you can do to improve your food safety and use the hashtag #MLFgiveaway. Please no more than two contest tweets per day.


Leave a comment on this blog about what you've done or will do ensure you and your family improve their food safety - or just what you're doing to stay healthy in general. One comment per day maximum.

So, you can have up to 3 entries per day by tweeting twice and commenting once.

Thanks for stopping by and I'm looking forward to your comments.

Disclosure: I was given a thermal bag of goodies including everything in the giveaway, as well as some meat products and gas cards for attending the roundtable. All opinions expressed are completely my own and I would never, ever promote anything I don't personally believe to be true.
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