Cut Corners On Safety At Your Financial Peril

In some jobs and in some industries, it doesn’t really matter what you do, you’re not likely to hurt anyone.

An artist who creates bad paintings simply doesn’t sell those paintings. No matter how bad they are they’re not going to cause an outbreak of art-induced illness or death among unsuspecting gallery visitors.

A bad movie just won’t sell many tickets; it won’t make anyone sick. (OK, there might be an exception to that rule. The jerky camera movements in J. J. Abrams recent movie Cloverfield reportedly made some people feel nauseated. Still, no one actually died from it.)

Other industries, however, have a great potential for causing injury and death to the public.

A construction company that uses sub-standard building materials or shoddy workmanship could be responsible for collapsed buildings or bridges. (The 2006 bridge collapse in Laval, Quebec is an example.)

A pharmaceutical company that doesn’t adequately test a new drug could cause premature deaths or birth defects. (Remember GrĂ¼nenthal’s thalidomide?)

A food company that doesn’t properly test its processing plants could spread disease.

It’s this last example we’ll focus on here.

Right now there’s an outbreak of listeriosis making headlines in Canada. Listeria monocytogenes is a bacterium found in manure that can contaminate meats and cheeses.

In this most recent outbreak there have been eleven confirmed deaths so far, with six more being investigated, while another 33 or so may be infected. This comes after Maple Leaf Foods somehow allowed contaminated meat to ship from one of its processing plants in Toronto.

The effect on the public’s health has caused a predictable mirror effect on the company’s stock prices; Maple Leaf’s stock has dropped by about 20% since the outbreak was made public while the recall the company instituted to stop the sale of their suspect product has so far cost them $20 million.

We said earlier that this is the most recent outbreak of listeriosis in North America. Back in 1998 there was another outbreak that caused 15 deaths.

Here’s where things get stupid, as if they weren’t already.

In 2006, the Canadian Meat Council, an industry body, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, a government body, were both upset with the stringent meat inspection laws that they claimed hampered their production. Two issues in particular irked them: The testing of finished products for Listeria monocytogenes, and the practice of making site inspector’s reports available to the public.

This latter item, they said, embarrassed some meat companies because the public might assume that meat from a facility found to be “marginally acceptable” might not be safe. Well, duh! Isn’t that just what “marginally acceptable” means? And shouldn’t the public be allowed to know that?

Let’s be clear; we’re not here stating that any of Maple Leaf’s plants were on that “marginally acceptable” list. Nor are we stating that Maple Leaf Foods was directly or indirectly responsible for the deaths of those eleven people. (Yes, this is an effort to cover our legal tush.)

It is interesting to note, however, that several massive class action law suits have been launched against Maple Leaf Foods Inc, and that Michael McCain (from the family that owned McCain Foods, the french fry company), the CEO of Maple Leaf Foods, issued public statements apologizing for the outbreak and stated, “The buck stops here.” It almost certainly will.

McCain also said, “This is not about the lawyers and the accountants.” (Don’t worry, it will be.) “It’s about public health and our consumers and people, that’s where we’re spending our time and attention.”

Really? If that’s true, we can only hope that McCain and his Maple Leaf Foods was not part of the CMC delegation that wanted to loosen inspection standards two years ago.

Here’s the lesson: When it comes to the public’s safety, or to the safety of your own employees, don’t cut corners. Don’t try to do just the minimum required by law. If you do, you too may face law suits. Worse, you may have to use your own products.