Saturday, May 29, 2010

Tasty Treats, Delicious Dialogue and Surviving Spin

Thursday night had me commuting out to Mississauga for the Maple Leaf Foods bloggers roundtable. This was the event organized by their PR folks to reach out to bloggers (and their readers) coinciding with the launch of their Food Safety Pledge.

I discussed the details of the situation last week: Listeriosis outbreak, 23 deaths, law suits, independent investigations, damage control.

So there I was, with twenty-odd other parental bloggers at the shiny new Maple Leaf Food ThinkFood! centre. It's an impressive facility, despite being located in the middle of endless parking lot.

Maple Leaf was clearly taking things seriously as numerous key members of senior management were present, including CEO Michael McCain. I was struck that he would dedicate three hours of his evening to speak with us. Now clearly Maple Leaf has an agenda. Although they have regained a good chunk of their market share following the 2008 crisis, they want to reach parents and get out the message of their renewed commitment to food safety. I was still impressed when he opened with:

"On our watch 22 people died." 

Mr. McCain wasn't ducking responsibility. He explained to us Maple Leaf's new approach to food safety emphasizing process, discipline and oversight. He said all the right things with their approach focussing not only on state-of-the-art physical assets and technology, but also the importance of process and people. He spoke of their training commitments, the introduction of a Chief Food Safety Officer, and looking beyond Canada and North America to international food safety best practices.

Following his opening remarks and some comments from Sharon Beals, Senior Vice President, Food Safety and Quality Assurance, they opened the floor to "dialogue". We spent the next hour or so asking questions. And there were some pretty darn good questions. While some of the answers were spun, Mr. McCain and Ms. Beals didn't really dodge anything. They confronted the issue that they had "killed 22 people" and although they couldn't guarantee "perfection" they were going to work as hard as they could to prevent this from happening again.

The general sense I got was that Maple Leaf had made considerable strides since summer 2008. They still have some ways to go, but I honestly believe that they are looking to stay ahead of the curve.

The discussion got more interesting when it turned to the long-term health effects of their products, packaging and processes. I'm still ambivalent on where I ended up on these questions. They do offer choice (thousands of brands, some I had no idea were Maple Leaf). And to a certain extent it is up to the consumer to make their own choices. Mr. McCain emphasized balance and it's true no one is forcing consumers to consume Maple Leaf products. I do think it is incumbent on the company to offer healthy options and to provide the tools to allow for balance in choice, but beyond guaranteeing the safety of their products is it their responsibility to ensure all their products are the most healthy available? I'm not sure it is. There is definitely demand for unhealthy products (heck I love a good hot dog just like Michael McCain). Why shouldn't they meet that demand? Like I said, I'm still torn on these issues.

At the end of the session I was left feeling impressed by the steps they have taken and yes I will buy Maple Leaf products without fear regarding food safety (are any producers going to be safer?), heck I think I already do. I know that this was the goal of the session and I don't want to shill for Maple Leaf, but irregardless of the freebies they loaded us up with and the free dinner, I think I can say this honestly. I'm still torn on the overall health effects of their products, but sometime convenience will win and I will continue to strive for balance in my eating (we do cook most food from scratch).

At the end of the day this was a marketing effort, and that will colour everything, but if nothing else it has prompted me to think about food, safety and health in ways that maybe I took for granted.


Diana Mancuso said...

Excellent writeup, Nick. I'm right there with you in terms of feeling torn over the issues you mentioned. I think Michael and Sharon did a great job answering the questions. They wouldn't be in their position if they weren't good at that. I really do believe the company's intentions are good but you always wonder if they could do more, ie. in terms of educating consumers on the nutritional value of their foods and the importance of a "balanced" diet. Granted, they're not experts in that arena but if they can be a global leader in food safety, why not take the lead in providing a variety of healthy options and the information we need to make healthy choices?

CynthiaK said...

Great post, Nick. I, like you, feel that they've made strides in the last two years in terms of food safety. How many companies of the same magnitude (or even smaller ones) are doing this much?

And while I still buy mostly unprocessed foods to cook for my family, there will be times when "faster foods" are called for. I won't shy away from buying Maple Leaf.

JackiYo said...

"with twenty-odd other parental bloggers" ... We are a pretty odd bunch, eh? ;)

My post will reflect many of the same thoughts. I think the majority of us came out with the same feelings re: their commitment to food safety, as well as the responses re: health, additives and processed foods in general.

chantel aka the6packmom said...

Hi Nick
We met at the event Chantel (the one with 6 children)
Just wanted to say it was nice meeting you, and your write up is great!