A food-crisis media frenzy, combined with poor industry mitigation, may wipe out farms in the wake of the strawberry contamination scare, writes strawberry farm manager Paul Davis.
DISAPPOINTED is perhaps the best word for me to describe how I feel about the way in which the strawberry industry, retailers and some media organisations have dealt with the “needles and pins in fruit” issue affecting strawberries and, now, some other fresh fruit.
To recap, almost two weeks ago, there were reports of pins being found in strawberries. A recall was put in place for the affected brands, which were then thought to be only from Queensland. This is standard industry practice should something happen with a shipment. Since then, the incident has spread nationwide, prompting the removal of strawberries from supermarket shelves.
The affected brands are Berry Licious, Berry Obsession, Donnybrook, Oasis, Love Berry and Delightful Strawberries. Queensland’s leading horticultural advocate came out with a statement on 18 September – ten days after the incident – pleading for calm and criticising reporting of the incident.
For context, I have been working a strawberry farm for two seasons and effectively managing the farm this year. As a result, I have some knowledge of the moving parts of this industry, although obviously not as in-depth as others who have been in it for decades. What I do bring, however, is a perspective from over 20 years in other industries.
Since the incident, I have been talking to customers at the farm gate, listening to their concerns and relaying my thoughts on the matter, some of which I will share here. I will include the "trace" component so you can understand how a strawberry punnet is traced from paddock to plate.
The strawberry season (from a harvesting perspective) in Queensland runs from “Mother’s day to Father's day” — so, May/June through to August/September. Victoria's season then begins, then South Australia. It is the growers in Victoria I feel for in this incident, as Queensland is at the end of its season. Several weeks ago, the price started to collapse to under $1 per 250g punnet in Brisbane markets. This is below the cost of supply for some farmers, so a few had already “pulled up stumps”.
The Victorian suppliers, on the other hand, are entering their peak period. Any further collapse in price, because nobody wants to buy potentially contaminated strawberries, may seriously damage the profitability of some farms.
Trace: During the season, farms retain comprehensive information on what chemicals they apply to their crop. This is recorded and audited to ensure details are maintained.
There are many hands that “touch” a strawberry punnet as it makes its way from paddock to plate. The first step in the harvesting process is picking. The little farm I manage only has 20,000 plants, so, at peak season in July, I had three pickers (including me).
Larger farms have 500,000-plus strawberry plants (the largest, in Bundaberg, is over 3,000,000), so the workforce required is large and comprised primarily of itinerant labour or contract pickers, who are specialists following the season down the Australian eastern seaboard.
Trace: For every farm to comply with their certifications to supply, they have to know who is picking and when. Some farms go to the detail of knowing which picker picked each row.
After picking, there is the packing process, which also includes grading and sorting. For the supermarket, open-air punnets are used — meaning the punnets are not sealed. This allows the fruit to “breathe” and remain dry — dampness is the enemy of a strawberry. For the larger farms, this process can involve scores of people.
Trace: As with picking, for packing, farms know who was packing and, in some instances, who packed which batch of berries.
As punnets are packed, they are then placed into trays. Each shipment is allocated a number known to that farm so that, in the event of a recall, the farm can trace back to the affected shipment and refer to the information already recorded. Each tray is marked with that number.
Trace: Each shipment has a consignment order which records the number of trays/kg in that order, how many pallets, the driver who collected it and a link to the unique number known to the farm for that shipment.
Once the product leaves the farm gate, the farm no longer has control over what happens with their product. This, perhaps, is an area of frustration for me with the reporting and speculation regarding the pin incident. The automatic assumption has been that it is a farm issue – a “disgruntled employee” – combined with calls for farms to install metal detectors, or tighten up procedures.
But once the product leaves the farm gate, the farm is no longer in control. The police have yet to indicate whether the incident originated on farms or further up the supply chain. I am not going to speculate here. Suffice to say, suggesting farmers “do more” to mitigate food quality before the results are in is jumping the gun.
Trace: I do not have visibility inside the shipping company manifests, so I will not speculate how they track produce. It would be safe to assume they have systems in place to ensure the product ends up in the correct place.
Once the product arrives at the markets, the open-air containers (remember, unsealed) are available for buyers to bid on.
Trace: I do not know how many people may interact with a product once it is in the markets. However, there would likely be some level of paperwork to link buyer to seller.
The product is then shipped from the market to the retailer for final distribution.
Trace: As with shipment from farms, there would be manifests and other paperwork to ensure the product reaches its destination.
Mitigating the pin issue
Now with a bit of an understanding of how a strawberry may get from the farm to your plate, how is something like the pin-incident mitigated?
You may gather there are a lot of places where an unscrupulous individual could act in such a way as to cause, or threaten to cause, harm.
For starters, let's look at communication. Once the incident occurred, the relevant industry association could have come forward with messaging advising the customers on what they can do to mitigate if concerned (cutting fruit for example). They could suggest calm to allow investigators the time to catch the culprit(s), highlighting how much traceability there is in the supply chain — in a clearer version of what I have done here.
Instead, what did we get? An industry association, Growcom, came out with a press release ten days after the incident, calling for calm and having a go at “overly emotional messages”. Sorry, but because there was no influence on the messaging at an industry level, sensationalism was allowed to fill the void.
Now to reporting. Nothing like a “food crisis” to get eyeballs. The problem is, perspective is lost by the need to stir up fear in the race to get more headlines. Pins in food is bad, yes. And, yes, the industry should continue to improve the safety of the product-to-plate supply chain. However, a handful of pins across the 200,000kg of punnets every day loses perspective.
Instead of a measured response from the industry and responsible reporting from the media, we ended up with a media storm that resulted in the big-players removing their buying power from the markets, devastating the price paid to farmers. At our farm gate, I actually ended up with more people wanting strawberries. Those consumers recognised the issue was bad, however they still wanted the product. Knee-jerk reactions from the big suppliers because of “brand damage” ignores the intelligence of their consumers.
What to do though? Is it possible to change packaging? Maybe — although sealing in the product introduces its own food-quality challenges. Should the farms install metal detectors? Maybe — although wouldn’t it be better to install at the market or supermarket level? As aggregators, they could use the devices across all fresh produce to mitigate this risk. That said, would a metal detector pick up a small pin? What if the pin was plastic?
At the end of the day, I am confident the police will catch the people who have done this. I am also sure the industry will learn and put in place measures to strengthen processes. In the meantime, support a Victorian farm, buy a strawberry punnet and, if you're concerned about pins, cut the fruit up before eating.
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