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XL Foods, Tories and a politicized inspection agency offer a textbook case of brand destruction

Gerry Ritz

Today is Thanksgiving, and we give thanks the XL Foods plant in southeastern Alberta doesn't process turkeys!

Because XL Foods, its parent company, the Alberta Progressive Conservative Government, the federal Conservative Government and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency have effectively destroyed the reputation of Alberta beef in the span of a single month.

In addition to the as-yet-undetermined problems that caused E. coli contamination inside XL Foods' massive plant in the town of Brooks, they've provided a textbook example of how not to handle a public relations crisis.

First, it's obvious that no one did any planning about how to respond if something like this happened -- even though it was bound to be a possibility in any industrial food processing operation.

When it did happen, at least on the public relations file, each of the parties involved said and did the wrong thing at every turn!

First they tried to ignore the problem, then they downplayed it, then they refused to respond to questions from journalists and the public, then they looked for someone else to blame.

Meanwhile, when they finally got around to organizing a recall of the products from the plant, the task that should have been Priority 1 on Day 1, the list of already-sold products had gown so long it was impossible for anyone to keep track of it. More than 2,000 products are now on the list, we are told. Cases of E. coli infection tied to the plant have literally spread across the country.

On Friday, media reported cases showing up on Vancouver Island in the Pacific Ocean and Newfoundland in the Atlantic! Yesterday, new cases were reported showing up again throughout Canada -- as will continue for months, because many people buy meat, throw it in the freezer and forget about it until they need it.

The public relations implications of this kind of food poisoning, even from a massive meat-packing plant like the one in Brooks, could have been minimized with a swift, honest and open response, with an action plan for fixing the problem that caused the poisoning set out clearly and transparently for the worried public.

Instead, every one of the parties to this public relations disaster turtled, acting slowly if at all on the core problem while insulting us with their explanations and evasions.

Under these circumstances, calls for a public inquiry into what went wrong made by the food inspectors' union seem entirely reasonable. How else are consumers in Canada, and beef buyers abroad, ever going to be able to trust meat from Alberta again?

After all, when we needed action and openness, everybody in a position to do anything waited for days, effectively denying there was anything wrong at all after U.S. Customs detected E. coli in beef shipped from the XL plant on Sept. 3.

The responses of both XL Foods and its parent company Nilsson Brothers were pathetic. They left recorded telephone messages for reporters, for crying out loud.

Having your spokespeople refuse to appear on camera and describe what’s being done to fix the problem -- no matter how uncomfortable it makes them -- just doesn't make the cut. What conclusion are reasonable people left with but that they've gone into hiding?

Meanwhile, Conservative politicians at two levels of government blandly assured us we had nothing to worry about and advised us to keep eating beef. "Let’s remember to cook it well," Alberta Premier Alison Redford patronizingly advised us. Alberta Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson went shopping for steaks with TV cameras in tow.

CFIA blamed the company (which still wasn't saying anything) for being slow providing information. It insisted it had enough inspectors. Provincial Tories denied it was their problem and made it clear the feds regulate the plant. Everybody pointed out it was just one plant -- forgetting to mention it’s one plant that’s so big it processes 40 per cent of the beef in Canada!

Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry "Cold Cuts" Ritz held a news conference and then had his media flunkies help him escape when he couldn't or wouldn't answer the questions reporters threw at him. Someone even tried to blame a cow!

The damage from this gong show to Alberta beef's hitherto impeccable "brand" -- that hard-to-define concept of a promise of values, benefits and costs, consistently delivered, that establishes satisfaction when compared with the competition -- is immeasurable.

In the case of Alberta beef, it may take a generation or more to fix it. Photo opportunities of politicians buying steaks in their local grocery stores or right-wing bloviators calling consumers names for being rightfully concerned about the health and cleanliness of the food they plan to feed to their families won't help one bit.

Damaged brands can be repaired, of course -- just look at the successful effort by former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney, once the most hated man in Canada, to get good ink in the media. But it takes time and costs money.

Drug-maker Johnson & Johnson's swift and open response to the 1982 Tylenol tampering murders in Chicago is generally held to be the textbook example of the right way to deal with a public relations crisis.

The company co-operated with authorities, was completely open and honest with the public and media about the nature and magnitude of what happened, immediately and voluntarily recalled the product, and aggressively and transparently moved to ensure nothing like that could ever happen again.

Tylenol sales plummeted briefly, then rebounded. Tylenol, its name unchanged, today remains the one of the most popular painkiller brands in North America, even as we curse the multiple layers of packaging that make another case of deadly tampering all but impossible.

So what's the plan for cleaning up the XL Foods plant and making sure this won't happen again either? Informing the public about where their meat originates? Hiring lots of federal inspectors, unbiased and not beholden to the company?

The trouble with these ideas -- which would help to solve both the E. coli problem and the resulting PR disaster -- is that they’re not what either our provincial or federal Conservatives governments want to do.

No, they're all for "less regulation" and more privatization. They're determined to cut government services to "save" us from tax increases. And there's no way they want to make it easy for consumers to identify where their meat comes from because they know how we would respond -- we'd buy our beef from anywhere else and, like General Motors, XL Foods is too big to fail.

So don't expect any more openness in the weeks ahead from the party whose unofficial motto is "never apologize, never explain" than we've seen up to now.

Alberta's beef producers spent a lot of energy and money on a brand-building campaign that persuaded the world, "If it ain't Alberta, it ain't beef."

In one month, the disaster perpetrated by two companies, two Conservative governments and a frightened, politicized food inspection agency have turned this into, "If it's from Alberta, it ain't safe!"

You can't fix this problem by changing what we call beef, after all, although it wouldn't be surprising if we discovered these clowns were thinking of something like "If it ain't from the unnamed territory between Saskatchewan and B.C. … it ain't … uh …  bovine comestibles!” (And I do mean clowns. Who can forget Ritz's side-splitter about the death of a thousand cold cuts during the 2008 listeriosis crisis?)

Well, Alberta beef's brand is going to have to be fixed. Unfortunately, that's going to cost us taxpayers a lot of money and Alberta's beef farmers a lot of time, tears and bankruptcies.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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