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Canada's Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz leaves a news conference after answering questions regarding the E. Coli outbreak in Canada, at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) Laboratory in Calgary, Alberta, October 3, 2012. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)
Canada's Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz leaves a news conference after answering questions regarding the E. Coli outbreak in Canada, at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) Laboratory in Calgary, Alberta, October 3, 2012. (TODD KOROL/REUTERS)

Communication breakdown: How Canadians were let down on E. coli response Add to ...

So far, 10 Canadians have been poisoned by beef tainted with the E. coli 0157:H7 bacterium, a pathogen that originates in cattle excrement.

But millions more Canadians have been fed a bunch of B.S. by those whose responsibility it is to prevent, contain and explain such public health disasters.

When there is an outbreak of disease, food-borne or otherwise, the most powerful tool we have to contain it is information.

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Transparency is the hallmark of good crisis communication.

Yet, in this instance, XL Foods Ltd., the company where the tainted beef originated, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, which oversees the monitoring and enforcement of food safety regulations, and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz, who is ultimately responsible for food regulation, have distinguished themselves with foot-dragging, the uttering of half-truths, cowering in fear, and inappropriate beef boosterism.

They have, individually and collectively, failed lamentably in the practice of Communications 101.

Let’s leave the shortcomings of Canada’s food inspection system, real and perceived, for another day but timing is a key issue here.

On Sept. 4, routine testing revealed E. coli in meat produced at XL Foods. That same day, the U.S. Department of Agriculture discovered tainted meat and halted shipments. But the CFIA determined “there was no risk to consumers” and kept mum. (Later, it would be determined that E. coli tainted meat was produced on five days: Aug. 24, 27, 28, 29 and Sept. 5, when testing protocols were not followed by the company.)

Skip forward to Sept. 13, when the first two cases of people sickened by E. coli from eating tainted beef were identified in Alberta. That day, XL began notifying its clients there might be a problem with its beef trimmings. Yet, the CFIA did not issue an alert to the public until three days later, Sept. 16.

From then on, CFIA issued a bunch of directives to the company and, slowly but surely, issued more laconic alerts to consumers. The recalls of beef – 1,800 products and counting – were all voluntary. But the XL Foods plant remained open, cranking out beef, until Sept. 27, when its licence was temporarily suspended.

At this point, there had been a series of small news stories but, despite the silence of officialdom, it was becoming more obvious that there was a significant problem.

On Oct. 03, Mr. Ritz held a news conference at the plant, where he sought to reassure the public beef was safe. When questions from reporters started getting pointed, about seven minutes in, the event was cut short. Instead, the minister attended a Rotary Club luncheon, where he said of his beef entrée: “I don’t know where it came from. I don’t care. I know it’s safe.”

Company officials were invisible instead of inane. XL Foods said nothing until Oct. 04, when it posted a statement on an answering machine, saying: “We take full responsibility for our plant operations and the food it produces.”

One would hope so.

But here’s the thing: When you’re poisoning people, even unintentionally, a voice message three weeks into the outbreak doesn’t cut it, nor do ministerial blandishments, nor do CFIA press releases whining that “investigations into outbreaks of food-borne illness can be complex.”

Peter Sandman, a business professor at Rutgers University and the guru of crisis communications, says there are six strategies required during a situation like tainted beef: 1) don’t over-reassure; 2) acknowledge uncertainty; 3) treat the public’s fears as legitimate; 4) express your own feelings; 5) offer people things to do to protect themselves; 6) don’t worry about panic because panic is rare.

The company, the regulator and the minister failed on every single one of these points.

Worse yet, they have no excuse because we’ve seen this movie before.

In 2008, when Maple Leaf Foods Inc. produced listeria tainted luncheon meats that killed 22 people and sickened 35 others, the company responded in textbook fashion. CEO Michael McCain was front and centre: He was available to the media, he was transparent and he was contrite.

Maple Leaf recalled all its meat and shut down the plant – which is what XL should have done. The company then apologized, in print and via its CEO, it fixed the problems, and it compensated the victims.

Mr. Ritz was minister during the listeria crisis. His government commissioned a report from Sheila Weatherill, which cost taxpayers $5.3-million.

Obviously, he has not read or understood that report, which, in addition to its technical recommendations for improving food safety, had two overriding messages: 1) That communication by the CFIA and the government more generally were appallingly bad and 2) there was a “void in leadership” that contributed to the deaths.

Today, as the E. coli tainted meat outbreak demonstrates, communication is as bad, if not worse, and the void in leadership is even more gaping.

That void is a greater threat to the health of Canadians than any bacterium.

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