The outbreak at the Bartor Road plant in Toronto, Ontario, Canada in 2008 resulted in 22 deaths and is considered one of the deadliest food safety outbreaks in Canadian history. The contamination affected a number of cold cut products produced at the plant. The cause of the outbreak was the cleaning procedures of two slicing machines that had meat residue lodged deeply inside their internal workings, which allowed the bacteria to grow unchecked over a long period of time despite the thorough cleaning and maintenance of the working surfaces. Maple Leaf Foods had an exemplary record for food safety up to that point and had demonstrated a high level of attention to food safety and quality for several years. Yet the day-to-day safety culture did not prevent the unforeseen possibility of contamination resulting from the buildup of food residue inside the machine.
The lawsuit was brought by franchisees of Mr. Sub restaurants, which claimed that the recall led to a shortage of meat products that resulted in significant financial losses. While there is no evidence that Mr. Sub served any contaminated product or that anyone was harmed by eating Mr. Sub sandwiches, the lawsuit asserted that Maple Leaf owed a financial duty of care to franchisees for lost revenue resulting from the meat recall. Franchisees had an exclusive supply arrangement that obligated them to purchase products from a distributor in the Maple Leaf supply chain, even though there was no direct contractual relationship between the franchisees and Maple Leaf Foods.
Taking the Food Safety Issue to Court
The legal battle began in 2016, when the Ontario Superior Court of Justice ruled that Maple Leaf Foods owed a duty of care to the franchisees to provide safe product. Maple Leaf Foods appealed that decision, and the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that Maple Leaf Food’s duty of care was to the end consumer, not the franchisees. The franchisees then brought the case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The food industry has been concerned that if the ruling had effectively broadened the duty of care to include economic loss between producers and franchisees, that producers and manufacturers would be reluctant to issue recalls that would make them financially liable.
The Supreme Court’s Final Decision
In its 5-4 decision, The Supreme Court of Canada wrote: “Though the common law readily imposes liability for negligent interference with and injury to the rights in bodily integrity, mental health and property, it has been slow to accord protection to purely economic interests.”
While dismissing this appeal brings an end to this case, it serves as an important reminder of the importance of safety in the food industry. Maple Leaf Foods’ exemplary safety culture did not, at that time, collect the sort of trending data that would have pointed to a problem with those particular machines in the Bartor Road plant. With food safety, food crime, and supply chain integrity concerns on the rise in the wake of COVID-19, the industry is looking to cutting-edge advances in innovative food safety technology to eliminate the hazards that lead to these sorts of incidents.
To learn more about quality in the food industry, click here download our Insight Report, Food Integrity A Practitioner’s Guide to Navigating Food Quality and Safety Standards.