Putting fear into food – needles in strawberries

The recent discovery of needles in fresh strawberries highlights how vulnerable our food supply chains are to deliberate contamination and tampering. This latest attack could be viewed as a form of food terrorism, which can have major economic impacts. However we can and should continue to buy strawberries and consume them safely – here’s how.

Strawberries contaminated with needles have now been discovered in all Australian States. Let us be clear that this is a deliberate malicious act, not a problem with machinery or processing. One of the perplexing issues with the case is that it isn’t targeting a particular supplier or seller of strawberries, but rather it seems to be targeting Australian strawberries as a whole. The other perplexing issue is that it is not clear who is responsible for these incidents, as they would also have had to act quickly and on a national scale – a syndicate of disgruntled raspberry growers or organised overseas strawberry gang perhaps.

Australia produces 800,000 punnets a day and with only seven needles found, you’ve got a better chance of winning the lotto than being affected.

If the tactic of the attacks is to undermine the Australian strawberry industry, then it’s already starting to work. Some of the major Australian strawberry suppliers are now having to dump fruit as big stores are finding it harder to sell fruit or selling it at much-reduced prices. And overseas New Zealand announced yesterday that they would stop selling Australian strawberries until the needle contamination issues had been resolved.

So let’s look at this issue of fear in food in a bit more detail

Food terrorism – the dynamics of fear

Targeting food supply chains by poisoning them or contaminating them can be a form of terrorism. Where terrorism is defined, in its broadest sense, as the use of intentionally indiscriminate violence or intimidation as a means to create terror among masses of people; or fear to achieve a financial, political, religious or ideological aim.

The strawberry-needle case can be viewed as intimidation (threat of harm if you do something – eat strawberries) most likely for a financial outcome.

But its not clear who is undertaking the acts (terrorists usually identify themselves and use the acts to promote their organisation) and what their goal is (again terrorist acts usually aim to support a declared cause or outcome).

Concerns about threats to the safety and security of food supplies are particularly prevalent in America. After the September 11 attacks the U.S. government allocated $4.3 billion to protect “America from a possible bioterrorist attack or other catastrophic public health emergency”, and resulted in several investigations of food security or bioterrorism in food supply chains, from farming to manufacturing.

Certainly some terrorist organisations use or consider using food terrorism. In early September, ISIS called for its supporters to target “unbelievers” (i.e., the West) by injecting poisons (such as cyanide) into fruits and vegetables or containers of ice cream found in supermarkets and grocery stores.

However the latest strawberry needle incident is unlikely to be an ISIS orchestrated attack, but rather a financially motivated attack.

The cost of fear 

Previous food contamination cases have had a big impact on the targeted industry.

The current impact to the strawberry industry is likely to be felt for some time, and at least till the end of the calendar year.

Perhaps two of the most well-known food tampering scandals in Australia involved Top Taste and Sizzler.

Brisbane-based food company Top Taste shut down operations after foreign objects, including a sewing needle and a razor blade, were found in cakes in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania. More than 4 million cakes were destroyed in a nationwide recall.

The restaurant chain Sizzler closed all self-serve salad bars in Australia after rat pellets were found at two eateries in Brisbane. Sizzler outlets in Toowong and the Myer Centre were contaminated with green pellets and a woman was charged over the incident.

In the case of Sizzler, they barely survived the attacks, they’ve nearly collapsed with only a few stores now – they cease to be the iconic brand they used to be.

We are yet to realise the full economic extent of the strawberry-needle attacks.

Mitigating fear 

But despite the fear, lets keep this all in perspective.

Only one person has been injured from biting into a strawberry containing a needle. As Strawberries Australia Inc Queensland spokesman Ray Daniels says, Australia produces 800,000 punnets a day and with only seven needles found, you’ve got a better chance of winning the lotto than being affected.

But none of us would choose to bite into a needle contaminated strawberry so what can be done:

  • You can still buy and consume strawberries but chop them or slice them before consumption;
  • With strawberry growing season upon us, buy from local suppliers or pick your own.

But if needle contamination continues or spreads to other sectors we may need to consider the introduction of standardised testing for metal fragment contamination in food supply chains.

A bread company targeted by a disgruntled employee, who introduced needles into batches of bread dough, used metal detectors to remove contaminated loaves from supply chains. This action also kept knowledge of the attack out of the media and avoided associated economic impacts.

The best way to reduce the risk of food terrorism, and its consequences, is to develop and implement a food biosecurity/defense management plan.

In Australia, food producers undertake a range of safe handling practices designed to reduce contamination, and are the best systems to build on to detect and mitigate deliberate contamination. It is now probably time to consider introducing further testing for a range of deliberate contamination.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has ordered Food Safety Australia New Zealand (FSANZA) to immediately investigate the contamination. He has also tasked the federal agency to investigate whether there are supply chain weaknesses and systemic changes required.

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