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A textbook case of public relations gone bad: XL Foods E. coli crisis

 

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If Maple Leaf Foods’ handling of the 2008 listeriosis crisis is the textbook example of how to handle a food crisis well, then XL Foods’ E. coli outbreak of 2012 is quickly becoming one of the best examples of public relations gone bad.

For those of you not familiar with XL Foods, the company is Canada’s second largest beef processing facility. Located in Brooks, Alberta, XL Foods is at the center of Canada’s largest beef recall that’s caused 15 Canadians to become ill. The crisis—and now public relations nightmare—began on September 4th when the Canadian Food Inspection Agency identified a positive E. coli sample in raw beef trimmings at an Alberta facility supplied by XL Foods.

Two brothers, Brian and Lee Nillson, own the private company. They’ve kept a low profile since the crisis began, avoiding media interviews and other public statements to the best of their ability. Almost every evening my husband and I watch The National on CBC-TV and watch Ben Thorlakson, a feed-lot operator and family friend, comment on behalf of the brothers.

As of today, six weeks after the crisis started, Brian Nillson has given one interview to Canadian media—to a reporter at PostMedia. Other than this print piece, not one executive from the company has made a public appearance to apologize for the outbreak.

When Maple Leaf Foods found itself in the midst of a listeriosis outbreak, company president Michael McCain held a news conference, appeared in a video on YouTube and distributed a company statement.

In addition to the mishandling of its current crisis, there are other differences between XL Foods and Maple Leaf. Tragically, 22 people died from the listeriosis outbreak. People are sick from XL Foods’ E. coli beef, but thankfully, no one has died. Maple Leaf Foods is publicly traded. XL Foods is not. Maple Leaf sells brands easily recognized by consumers. XL, on the other hand, sells private label beef to Costco, Safeway, IGA, Thrifty Foods and other grocery retailers.

But, honestly, where are the brothers in the midst of this public relations mess? Does the fact that their brand is a private label mean they don’t have a responsibility to let people know what’s happening? As owners of the company, should they not be accountable to provide some sort of explanation and keep the public apprised of developments at their plant?

These questions, of course, are rhetorical. The only possible and reasonable answers are: yes.



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