Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has echoed calls from Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison urging people to eat more (carefully cut) strawberries, and some growers are already noticing a shift in consumer sentiment.
Unlike health scares relating to foodborne diseases caused by bacteria, this sinister case of needles stuck in strawberries is unprecedented in Australia.
Palaszczuk claims there are 100 police who have been working “day and night” in search of the source of the problem, which has been formally connected to three brands – Donnybrook, Berry Licious and Berry Obsession – and has led to a string of copycat cases across the country.
These copycats have also used the idea in other fruits like bananas, apples and mangoes. But grower organisations want to keep low profiles on the issue and get on with business; for now such cases have been isolated and it appears any effects on sales have been negligible.
The same cannot be said for strawberries though. Sales have been hammered and many growers have been forced to cease harvesting on certain blocks, but efforts from government and the community have not gone unnoticed by producers or the public.
The Queensland Premier held a press conference today (Friday) on the property of grower Piñata Farms, which incidentally had already installed metal detectors prior to the crisis but for a very different motive; stray rocks, not sewing pins.
“I’m asking all Queenslanders to do one thing this weekend – get out and support our strawberry farmers by buying a punnet of strawberries,” Palaszczuk said.
“This is sabotage at its worst, and we want to catch who was responsible.”
Earlier this week, the Premier made a AUD1 million (US$729,500) pledge to help a strawberry industry that has been the victim of an “ugly, calculated and despicable crime”.
The relief funding has three facets: boosting demand through promotion; investigating ways to improve supply chain traceability and integrity; and helping growers for the remainder of the season and as the summer season ramps up in the Granite Belt area.
“The Department of Agriculture is currently finalizing those arrangements in conjunction with the industry association and of course we’ve heard that the federal government is going to be matching that,” she said, clarifying more information on funding would likely be given to growers on Monday.
“This is a $160 million industry [in Queensland; AUD288 million (US$210 million) nationwide]. It’s one that I’m incredibly proud of and one that I’m going to continue to support for many, many years to come,” she said.
The Premier also highlighted the incentive of a AUD100,000 (US$72,894) for anyone who can come forward with information about the crime, while the Prime Minister has announced plans to increase jail time for food tampering to 15 years.
Piñata Farms managing director Gavin Scurr thanked Premier Palaszczuk and the people of Australia for “having our back”.
“The last eight or nine days or so have been one of the most difficult times that Queensland strawberry growers have ever had,” Scurr said.
“The industry was literally on its knees earlier this week due to this ongoing crisis, however we’ve had our spirits uplifted in the last couple of days by the overwhelming support we’ve had from the Australian nation, from the people who are going in and buying strawberries despite this crisis.
“We’re hearing of thousands of people buying six, eight, 10 punnets at a time. There’s people who are going and buying every punnet that’s literally on the shelf at the time, and that has certainly lifted our spirits.”
Scurr said it had been a “harrowing experience” for strawberry farmers to have their integrity challenged.
“It’s caused consumers to consider whether they would buy strawberries or not and that’s tragic for us as an industry,” he said.
“However, we would like to go back to normal.”
Piñata Farms is one of the great Queensland strawberry producers. Like many in the industry they’ve had a very tough week, but the support of everyone across Queensland eating more strawberries is helping them get through – cut them up, don’t cut them out. pic.twitter.com/USlPJbxPEt
— AnnastaciaPalaszczuk (@AnnastaciaMP) 21 de septiembre de 2018
Situation still bleak, but market has turned around
The Queensland Strawberry Growers Association (QSGA) carried out an “information blitz” this week including its “Find a Farm” initiative encouraging people to visit orchards in the Sunshine Coast area to either pick their own fruit or buy from farm shops.
The response so far has been overwhelming for Amanda McMartin of McMartins Strawberry Farm, a family business that had fortunately already finished most of its harvesting when the crisis began.
“It hasn’t affected us too much but we’ve had a lot of solidarity,” McMartin told Fresh Fruit Portal.
“We’ve had a lot of people coming out and trying to help and support…we’ve been inundated with people coming and picking, and buying from our shop as well.”
And is this something the farm has ever seen before?
“No, it’s an extraordinary situation,” she said.
“It’s a little bit harder at the markets because we had a bit of heckling, so we didn’t sell as much as we normally would do because of people being a bit silly and ridiculous with the whole thing.
“But then the support came thick and fast after that once they realized it’s quite serious, that unless you support the farmer we’re going to go down.”
She added there would be a “big rally for support” next weekend as well.
QSGA vice president Adrian Schultz told Freshfruitportal.com his farm BerryLuv had also seen an exceptional turnout from people responding to the initiative with people picking fruit at a price that covers the cost of production.
“It’s still looking very bleak but I am getting some positive news from the agents now because we did a fairly big information blitz two days ago. That seems to be having some response because we’ve outlined to people that if we’re going to recover, it’s going to have to be people-driven,” Schultz said.
“At the beginning of this week we were thinking about shutting up shop for the season today, but the turnaround happened yesterday…it’s been overwhelming actually.
“That morning I had agents telling me that no one was buying fruit, and by that evening we had agents ringing me up and saying ‘great, it’s happening, people are starting to buy fruit. When can you send?’ And it’s slowly built from there.”
He said orders were looking “reasonably hopeful” for next week, and also believes Scott Morrison’s call for strawberry consumption and condemnation of “cowards” carrying out the needle contamination had a part to play.
Sabotaging our strawberries is sabotaging our farmers. It’s not right. It’s not on. It’s a crime. pic.twitter.com/2B9TTg9JOf
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) 19 de septiembre de 2018
For Schultz, much of the problem has been in the copycat acts rather than the initial cases of needles in punnets.
“It’s escalated because of all this copycat business that’s been going on – that’s what’s scared people because of the speed at which it’s spread around the country,” he said.
“As a result of all this I’ve had Biosecurity Queensland here today and Queensland Health are coming here next week. There’s a number of government bodies getting involved who want to find out about how a system works and how we can make it safer.
“They want to get in at a ground level and understand everything.”
He said these same factors are what have made it difficult for police to find the culprit.
“It took them several days just to understand how the industry works, how the movement of a berry from the field, through the packhouse, into the distribution centres and then out to the customer; it’s actually quite complex,” he said.
At the press conference at Piñata Farms’ property, Acting Chief Superintendent Terry Lawrence of the Queensland Police Service emphasized the need to speak to a large number of people, track CCTV footage and hone in on any particular issues raised during inquiries.
He said the police had identified 16 or 17 steps in the supply chain where the crime could have occurred, depending on how farms or packing houses are set up.
“We’re looking at every single aspect of the supply chain because we’ve got a large number of growers,” he said.
After reports of more berry brands being dragged into the debacle, Lawrence clarified concerns about contamination were in line with the three outlined by Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Dr. Jeanette Young.
“There are other punnets but they aren’t part of a recall and at this point of time due to the investigation and the way we’re going with it, I’m not going to go any further with numbers,” he said.
He also responded to questions about whether the initial crime could have been committed by a disgruntled worker.
“We’re considering motives right across the whole board. That’s not come from the Queensland Police Service – we’re looking at many, many motives, and I’m sure there are some I haven’t even thought of yet.”
One industry source close to Fresh Fruit Portal who asked not to be named was very unhappy with the premature claim from industry that a disgruntled worker was behind the act.
“Someone said speculation becomes a fact in a minute and a half,” the source said.
“The media coverage has been so alarmist. Apparently someone said it might be a disgruntled worker, and then later that became the headline,” he said.
Government takes ‘nil tolerance’ approach to contaminants in exports
Earlier this week QSGA industry officer Jennifer Rowling claimed that as the issue had received attention as far afield as the U.K. and Russia, a number of trade partners had “either already blocked Australian strawberry imports or are talking about doing so”.
However, in a statement given to Fresh Fruit Portal, the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources refuted the claim, mentioning interim control measures in place for the export of fresh strawberries to provide assurances to trading partners and keep markets open.
“These measures ensure that all strawberries exported from Australia will be checked to make sure they’re free from metal contaminants,” a spokesperson said.
“As of today, more than 15 consignments have been approved for export after meeting these new requirements.
“No markets have been closed to Australian strawberries by foreign authorities.”
The Australian strawberry industry exported almost AUD$29.7 million (US$21.65 million) of fresh strawberries in 2017–18.
For Australian strawberry exports to pass the government’s interim controls, visual inspection alone will not be an acceptable measure.
“In order for strawberry export permits to be approved, exporters will be required to provide assurance to the department that their consignment is free from metal contaminants,” the department said in a release.
“Interim control measures can include an assurance that the fruit will go through an effective metal screening process (metal detectors/X-ray) prior to export, or on-farm metal screening with measures to ensure product security has been maintained post screening.”
Is there a need for metal detectors on farms or in the supermarket?
While metal screening is one option for exporters, is it a practical solution for farmers focusing on the domestic market? There have been some calls for growers to emulate a system like Piñata Farms with the technology at packhouse level, but this would be out of reach for the average farm.
“I’m very confident that the programs that are in place are very good. It doesn’t mean we can’t do it better,” said Schultz of BerryLuv and the QSGA.
“But this demand about metal detectors, I think that’s something that’s going to need to be looked at,” he said.
“We’re a small farm. It’s not going to be economically viable for me to put a $30,000 (US$21,876) metal detector on my one pack bench, whereas everything funnels down to either Coles, Woolies, their distribution centres.
“It would make more sense to me to have these sorts of screening apparatus at that end where it’s coming into rather than being out here on the farms in particular.”
A case of mistaken identity
Some 1,000km (621mi) south of the crisis’ epicenter in a small town called Thirlmere outside Sydney, strawberry grower Assaf Ben Shalom has become inadvertently answerable to someone else’s problem. And it’s all in a name.
His business is called Berrylicious Strawberries, which is very similar to the name of one of the brands embroiled in the issue in Queensland – Berry Licious.
He says that since a 7:30 Report on his plight aired earlier this week on the ABC, he’s received a lot of support from the local community.
“They are my main customer base. We don’t supply to big chains,” he said.
“We haven’t really started [the season]. People are scared – I just had an email after all this after all these new reports, even though I tried to clarify on Facebook that I’m not related to this at all.”
He added that Channel Seven had incorrectly used his label rather than that of Berry Licious in its reporting.
“They took it from my Facebook. It was in the news report for a whole day all across Australia, which doesn’t concern all of Australia really. I’m only selling in the Sydney region, but my label has been shown on Channel Seven,” he said.
“They have apologized to me but they haven’t gone public and said sorry about that. They just sent me an email and said sorry, and that’s it.”
Ben Shalom runs a fairly modern operation as strawberry farms go, producing in substrate with coco-peat and elevated rows that make it easier for harvesters to do their jobs. The winter has delayed the crop, and despite the circumstances he intends to have it all picked.
“I’ve been waiting all winter for this to start. I’ve got no other option anyway if I wanted to – I’m too much at risk just to shut down at the moment,” he said.
And would the farmer consider changing the company’s name to avoid any similarity to a brand in question in this health scare?
“No, I’ve got nothing to hide,” he said.