Maple leaf executive backpedals on listeria quip

A high-level Maple Leaf Foods executive has been caught on camera joking about last year's listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 people… "We have a deep commitment to becoming a global leader in food safety to prevent this kind of tragedy from ever happening again," says the open letter from company president and CEO Michael McCain.

The Toronto Star
August 25, 2009

Maple Leaf executive backpedals on listeria quip
‘Ill-considered’ joke draws fire after video makes its way online
Robert Cribb

A high-level Maple Leaf Foods executive has been caught on camera joking about last year's listeriosis outbreak that killed 22 people.

Rory McAlpine, vice-president of government and industry relations with the food giant, was speaking at the Couchiching Institute of Public Affairs Conference in Orillia on Aug. 8 when he delivered a quip about the outbreak, with a punchline even he now says was tasteless.

"Just shortly after the (listeria) crisis … the Stanley Cup came to Orillia," he tells the crowd on a video that has made its way to the YouTube video hosting site. "There was a woman so excited that she went and she kissed the Stanley Cup. But then she got home and she began to worry and she began to wonder, ‘Oh my God, am I going to get listeria, I kissed the Stanley Cup.’

"So she phoned up Health Canada and the nice lady at Health Canada said, ‘Oh, no, no, no, no, you don’t need to worry. The Stanley Cup hasn't been in any contact with a Maple Leaf product for 42 years."

After pausing for laughter from the crowd, the former B.C. deputy agriculture minister explains the outbreak is a "serious issue" with personal importance to him because his university-aged son was made ill for 24 hours by "tainted meat that my company produces."

Doug Powell, a Canadian food safety expert at Kansas State University, called the joke "gross."

"It's nice that he apologized, but it would be better if he'd put warnings labels on products for old people and pregnant women and make (listeria test result) data public."

After a link to the video clip appeared on Powell's blog yesterday, McAlpine posted a mea culpa.

"I want to sincerely apologize … for the joke," he wrote. "These were my personal remarks, and I appreciate in hindsight they were not appropriate given the listeriosis outbreak and the death and illness it caused. I didn't in any way mean to make light of this tragedy and I feel terrible that my early remarks conveyed a callousness that I don't feel."

In an interview yesterday, McAlpine repeated his regrets, calling his comments "ill considered."

"It wasn't appropriate and I know that," he said.

The incident echoes a bit of jocularity from federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz last September.

During an election campaign and an outbreak investigation, Ritz jested to scientists and staffers that political fallout from the tragedy was "like a death by a thousand cuts. Or should I say cold cuts."

Tony Merchant, a Regina lawyer who represented more than 4,000 alleged victims of the outbreak in a class-action suit last year, said McAlpine's comments reflect insensitivity.

"You'd think people would feel shame for what has happened. You get the feeling that because they handled the media well and got heralded for handling the public disaster well, it may have gone to the hands of the Maple Leaf executives."

Maple Leaf settled the class-action lawsuit last year with a payout of up to $27 million to victims.

McAlpine's comments come as Maple Leaf Foods has placed full-page ads in newspapers referring to the anniversary of Canada's largest ever listeriosis outbreak.

"We have a deep commitment to becoming a global leader in food safety to prevent this kind of tragedy from ever happening again," says the open letter from company president and CEO Michael McCain.

http://www.thestar.com/article/685958


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