MISSISSAUGA, ONTARIO – Nov. 7, 2019, was an important day in the history of Maple Leaf Foods, Canada’s largest food processing company, based in Mississauga, Ontario. On that day, Maple Leaf Foods announced it was carbon neutral, the first company of its size to reach this sustainability milestone. To help mark the event and to help commemorate that day in the company’s history, the company gave members of the company team at its corporate headquarters seedlings to plant.

But this was not just a photo-op, an empty gesture or a public relations move by the company to pay lip service to the idea of sustainability. It was a concrete step forward, part of Maple Leaf’s goal of becoming the world’s first major carbon neutral food company, and a way to highlight its industry-leading sustainability efforts.

What Maple Leaf Foods has been doing – its philosophy and actions – are not limited to sustainability, either. The steps the company has been taking are groundbreaking efforts to implement its unique culture and approach to business operations in the meat and poultry industry. Besides implementing carbon neutral status and other aspects of sustainability, Maple Leaf has an industry-leading approach and mission on animal care, food safety, dealing with the challenges of COVID-19, diversity and inclusion for its employees, shared value, and its beliefs and actions on how people should be treated, including those with mental health issues and people from the LGBTQ community.

In the words of Michael McCain, the company’s chief executive officer and president, the company’s actions in these areas come from values and priorities under which Maple Leaf operates. These values and priorities, established by the company’s leadership team, are carried out by all employees, from one end of the company to the other.

While the company’s job is to make great food, the company is committed to a strong, value-based culture where employees take pride in doing what’s right for customers, the customer’s consumers and the communities where Maple Leaf operates, McCain said. Maple Leaf’s core values include doing what’s right; high performance; disciplined decision-making; intense curiosity; shared value; diverse and inclusive teams on the workforce; accountability; and transparency and humility.

And these values aren’t just on posters on the wall, McCain makes sure of that.

“These are part of our core beliefs, our defined leadership values. That includes explaining what our values mean to everyone who works in our company,” McCain said. “We set up teaching moments – everyone needs to embrace them. But ultimately, it’s my actions and Curtis’ actions [Curtis Frank, chief operating officer], and everyone in the company’s actions that matter. We spend a lot of time ensuring our actions live up to the values we espouse here.”

Food safety turning point

Randall Huffman, Maple Leaf Foods chief food safety and sustainability officer, looks back to the 2008 Listeria incident and how it shaped how food safety at the company has been handled ever since.

The outbreak of listeriosis linked to 23 Canadian deaths resulted in the company taking responsibility for what happened, an apology from McCain to the public, and a large recall of lunch meats from the affected plants – thousands of packages of meat.

Huffman described it as a “tragically sad event. This was a turning point for this company, as far as food safety goes,” he said. “It changed the way we did a lot of things, including putting people first. We have a deep connection with our consumers in Canada. We can’t change what happened, but I beat the drum on understanding what effect complacency can have.”

Maple Leaf runs an extremely comprehensive food safety program. He describes steps the company takes to make sure food safety and everything else is done well.

“We have an 8:30 phone call every morning. This began with Michael McCain days after the 2008 recall. This call goes to 30 of our facilities across Canada,” Huffman explained. “At first, we discussed the investigation, the root cause of the incident, and corrective actions. Thirteen years later, this 8:30 call from our CEO continues, every morning. This [particular] morning, close to 100 people were on the call.

“We commemorate what happened every year, on Aug. 23 – the anniversary of the recall,” he said.

The company also set out to become a global leader in food safety, by engaging every employee in food safety efforts, and building expert knowledge of food safety across the company.

“We launched Food Safety Foundations, a cross-functional training program, in partnership with the University of Guelph, thousands of employees have attended, in fact, all of us,” Huffman said.

“We established a Food Safety Advisory Council of global experts to bring best practices in food safety to Maple Leaf. To mention a few things – for our ready-to-eat products, we do a lot of environmental testing on food contact and non-contact surfaces. In our fresh poultry business, we test for Salmonella in our breeder flocks, hatcheries, fluff from chicks, our slaughter facilities and parts processing.”

Huffman said what the company learned from previous crises, partially prepared it for the coronavirus pandemic.

“We weren’t prepared for what actually came. But going through the 2010 H1N1 pandemic, we recognized what a pandemic is, and how it could impact our workforce,” he said. “So, we carried out training. We saw signals that something was coming that would affect our plants and our employees. We took very aggressive steps to deal with the pandemic and protect our workers.”

Sustaining commitments

Sustainability occupies a great deal of attention at Maple Leaf Foods. The company is on a journey to become the most sustainable protein company on earth. Besides becoming the world’s first major carbon neutral food company, it set science-based targets, one of only three animal protein companies to do so. Last year, Maple Leaf Foods was ranked second globally in the Coller FAIRR Protein Producer Index of Environmental, Social and Governance Performance. Companies are assigned scores against 10 sustainability factors, including governance, greenhouse gas emissions, water scarcity and use, waste and pollution, animal welfare, working conditions and food safety.

“To get to this aspirational goal, we’re taking bold steps and creating new markets,” Huffman said.

This includes Greenleaf Foods SPC, a wholly owned US-based subsidiary that produces plant-based foods, and Greenfield Natural Meat Co., based in Landmark, Manitoba, making sustainable meat products. There are no artificial ingredients or preservatives in these products. No meat is ever used from animals treated with antibiotics, or growth hormones. The animals are 100% vegetarian grain fed.

“Animal care is an important part of sustainability,” Huffman pointed out. “We are converting all of our company owned sow barns from gestation crates to Advanced Open Sow Housing, which we will complete by the end of this year.”

Other steps include adding trucks with hydraulic lifts, climate-controlled trucks for poultry transport to protect birds from heat and cold and adding an expert animal care advisory group with livestock-handling expert, Temple Grandin, as a member.

Sharing values

“Shared value” is an important leadership value at Maple Leaf Foods, Huffman said.

“The idea behind ‘shared value’ is to share and create enduring benefits to those we serve, including our consumers, our customers, our people (employees), the communities we operate in, our company’s shareholders, and the environment.”

These ideas include creating a sustainable meat platform, meat and poultry products made responsibly. “Like reducing antibiotics – this is a societal responsibility. Environmental sustainability, like reducing carbon emissions, cutting back methane on pig farms.”

Diversity and inclusion play a major role in the workforce of Maple Leaf Foods, explained Curtis Frank, COO.

“Our feelings and our actions about diversity and inclusion derive from our company’s history. Very simply, this company has been built with teams of remarkable people who value an inclusive workplace, embrace all forms of diversity, and want to include everyone where everyone collaborates. This has led to three employee resource groups at the company,” he said, adding, “We have double the number of women at the upper levels of this company than we had in 2017.”

Frank said the company is also a major supporter of the LGBTQ community.

“We fly the Pride flag at our company. We had a drag queen show at our company. And this is not just ‘checking boxes.’ We invest in our people. We train our people in our values in 16 sessions so far. We do anti-racism training. In fact, there is nothing we don’t tackle. We did a session on menopause. No subject is taboo. But we recognize we’re not perfect, we are imperfect.”

Frank said the company tries to follow its own unique culture. “We try to live our vision of sustainability – it’s not something in the back of an annual report. Our values are foundational and we’re passionate about them. That’s why we do what we do.

“Operating in our Canadian society, we’re big enough to make a difference in the world, but small enough to be nimble and agile. In our culture, people are nice, polite, compassionate. We’re progressive. We believe in equality. Partly because one out of five Canadians is born somewhere else, immigration is highly valued. What you see is what you get.”

Since Maple Leaf Foods is publicly owned, shareholder perception of its handling of not only business but social issues is a priority. Buy-in from its board of directors and investors on certain initiatives isn’t taken for granted. McCain said the company’s job is to serve all its stakeholders.

“We have multiple stakeholders. Our shareholders are one of those stakeholders. But they are not the only one. Under shared value, our goal is to create value for all the stakeholders,” McCain said. “If you look at any of these topics – LGBTQ for example – this is not an issue of opinion, it is a matter of social justice. Climate change – it is an existential threat we all face. Animal care – we and consumers believe animals deserve good care. As leaders, we’re making sure this is done.”