How would you feel if the name of your restaurant, firm or chain was part of a front page story titled: "Have You Eaten Any Of These?"

The sub-headline is: "Check your fridge: More and more of our favorite meat dishes, sandwiches pulled from shelves."

This is yesterday's front page for the Vancouver Sun.

Canada is in the midst of possibly the worst food-borne disaster in its history. One of the best known, almost revered100-year old meat companies, Maple Leaf, the prime producer of more than 220 different products, has had their major plant in Toronto shut down by government inspectors. The total recall of anything they produce is going to cost them at least $20 million at a minimum.

Worse than any costs, however, the death toll liked to the spread of deadly listeriosis by way of the allegedly tainted meats and other products, has reached 12. More than 30 are very seriously ill, with others expected. If you want to get a relative size of such a disaster in the U.S.A., just multiply all these numbers by a factor of 10.

The front pages of the major dailies are carrying the terrible news. Broadcast media is full of it. The newspaper I mentioned above, the Vancouver Sun, lists hundreds of different products…and the names of at least seven different major food service and restaurant chains...right on the front page.

This food-borne epidemic – and the obvious resultant media frenzy – is shedding a heat lamp of light on both the supermarkets and entire food service industry in this country. The fear is palpable and mounting.

I’m visiting British Columbia today; in a restaurant at lunch, I watched people repeatedly avoid anything with sliced meats, meat products in general. They each had one major question of the server: "This doesn't have any Maple Leaf products in it, does it?"

I know, because I was one of them asking that very question. I was sitting at a table reading about this catastrophe; it sure made me sit up and take notice….fast!

I immediately thought of Boston Pizza, Tim Horton's, Mr. Submarine, Shopsys, McDonalds, Pizza Nova, and the many other food service outlets named in the front page article. The listing of the names of the product types, the brand names and those selling them, took up 2/3rds of the entire front page of the largest circulation newspaper in all of western Canada.

The National Post, the equivalent of USA Today in Canada, has a headline: Listeriosis Toll Grows.

The newspapers point out the grim news: those with immune-suppressed systems, small children, pregnant women and the elderly are all at great risk if they come in contact with this bacterium.

For the food service business, here's the most disquieting part: this particular bacterium likes it in the walk-in cooler. You have to operate your walk-in at less than 4 degrees Celsius or less to stop its growth. Additionally, it loves both salt and nitrates, which most other bacteria don't.

This is not your common, everyday bacterium. The experts are postulating the possibility that this particular bacterium is perhaps able to resist the types of sanitizers and cleaning agents now being used to clean and sanitize food production and food service equipment.

Moreover, it has a gestation period of anywhere from 2 to 70 days! The federal government bodies responsible are talking about watching these products and production facilities for up to 70 days.

Don't think it can't happen elsewhere…this company is reputed to be one of the very best in the industry for clean factories, proper procedures. Its record has been spotlessly clean…like its plants.

This is a major wake up call for all of us. Notwithstanding the tragic results of such a calamity, it is incumbent upon all of us in this food service and retail business to have a "crisis plan".

Do you have ways to immediately protect the public from such an outbreak…and to protect you and your employees?

Do you have a plan in place for such a possibility? If you operate a chain, does the head office have procedures they can immediately follow to ensure that the damage to your reputation is minimal?

Can you imagine how long it might take for Maple Leaf to gain back part of that sterling reputation, if ever?

I was in a supermarket this afternoon that had a pre-printed sign up at the deli department. It told the customers that they had immediately thrown out all and any of the meat products coming from the Toronto-area plant mentioned in all the media dispatches.

However, It did not mention that (as reported in the national and local media), most other operators are not taking ANY chances; they are throwing out any and ALL products (all 220 of them) made by Maple Leaf, regardless of the location of the plant which processed their meats. Most retailers and food service operators are not taking a chance with this.

There are other major meat brands that are aligned with or supplied by Maple Leaf. The media are mentioning them too. You can imagine where this is leading.

My field is marketing. I work to show restaurants how to market themselves, particularly independents. If you have worked years to build up that most valuable of assets…your reputation…be assured that one slip like this can cost you everything you've worked for…overnight.

They say the best defense is a good offense.

If I were you, I would ask my suppliers just where they are getting their products; I would want to know exactly how they are processed; don't take anything for granted. If this happens to your supplier of foods of any kind, you could go down with their ship.

If you don't have tons of dough to spend on spin-doctors to make it better in the media…immediately set out a "crisis plan" of exactly the WHAT, WHEN, WHY, WHERE, WHO and HOW you will defend yourself if such an event or any other crisis were to occur.

It's always easy to have a plan of what to do in the good times; but a plan for what to do if/when it hits the fan is more valuable. Ask your staff to participate and help you formulate what to do.

Remember Murphy's Law? MacNaughton's Law states that Murphy was an optimist.

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Tags: Law, MacNaughton's, Murphy's, crisis, deaths, food, health, inspectors, listeriosis, marketing, More…meat, plan, processed, service


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