I used to take my agricultural communications students to an annual pork producers’ top-performers’ recognition dinner at the Tavistock arena, to see how agri-food communications professionals orchestrated such a show. There was little glitz; the several hundred producers who attended the early-summer event were quite content to line-up with plates in hand outside the arena where the Zamboni normally dumped snow, to get whatever the catering company was barbequing.

Newcomers were surprised to see their towering Toronto-based host for the evening, Michael McCain of Maple Leaf Foods, wading in among them. McCain always had time to talk to farmers (and the media), and was pleased to be glad-handing and rewarding with farmers whose hogs were the top performers and consistently met the company’s processing specifications.

            Fast forward to a student-run initiative at the University of Guelph involving new uses for rendered meat products, wholly sponsored by a then-subsidiary of Maple Leaf Foods. Students were encouraged to turn the likes of feather meal and bone meal into something useful. For example, one group from the Ontario Agricultural College found a way to make amazingly durable recycled fence posts out of feathers.

Again, handing out cheques to the top performers, shaking their hands and posing for photos was Michael McCain — prospecting, always recruiting, showing support for leading students. He hoped they might someday consider a career with Maple Leaf, like  the Guelph food science alumnus who’d come up with the creative recycling project in the first place, hired by McCain’s with a free reign to develop products or uses others had missed.

         So in the wake of one of Canada’s worst food-related calamities, what happens to the years McCain spent generating goodwill, building relationships, nurturing careers, and most importantly, feeding Canadians? The company seems determined to survive, based on statements McCain’s been making about rebuilding trust and winning back consumers’ confidence. But it’s in for the challenge of its 100-year life.

           I can only imagine how deep Maple Leaf’s pockets are. It sold $5.2 billion worth of products in 2007. The clean up and recall will cost an estimated $20 million, let alone the lawsuits. I suspect it can weather tough storms, but this is the Hurricane Katrina of food safety disasters.

           Maple Leaf’s recovery plan is winning praise. The company’s acknowledged there’s a connection between the harmful bacteria that’s being blamed for the food-related illness and death, and the bacteria found in its plant. It recalled everything produced at its problematic Toronto plant, even though the offending products seem to be restricted to two lines. McCain has put himself out there, apologizing, accepting responsibility and vowing to get it right.

            But who knows if consumers will come back to Maple Leaf? A lot won’t, perhaps because the exact source of the problem may always be a mystery. This bacteria is everywhere, and some experts have said its entry point may never be found, which is little comfort to those who got sick, knew someone who did, or worse.

            The situation’s ugliness is amplified by its magnitude, and anyone who vilifies agribusiness is having a heyday. But this kind of problem is not restricted to giant companies such as Maple Leaf. Local meat shops with a handful of employees can get walloped with the same bacteria as Maple Leaf. That’s why governments lay down food safety rules for all processors, and create enforcement and bureaucracies that try to prevent such problems from happening.

            In the drive for solutions, let’s also consider whether the price we pay for food is adequate to ensure quality, safety and availability. Every one of those aspects has a cost, and if we maintain our national obsession with cheap food, something has to give. As farmers’ and processors’ expenses increase, along with our needs and expectations, how can we moan about paying what food really costs?