Date Posted: September 21, 2018
Lessons to be Learned from the Sabotage of Strawberries
The Quality Associates team has vast experience in FMCG, food production, horticulture, food technology, supply chain management and foodservice.
The impact in Australia has been extremely widespread. What started as an issue from one farm has led to cases nationwide. It is not yet known if the initial crime was an individual acting alone or a group acting together. It is not even known exactly where in the supply chain the crime occurred. To compound the problems for the industry, there have been multiple cases of copycats committing the same crime. This has exasperated the issues and prolonged the media coverage, growing fear in the public. This case has exposed to the general population the complexity of the food supply chain and demonstrated how wide an impact cases like this can have.
The fallout from the scandal has seen strawberries pulled from the shelves in major retailers across the country. The price of the strawberries that are still on sale has been slashed. The prices are being slashed from the already low price due to the season’s glut. Farmers are currently dumping excess stock or scrambling to find inventive ways to use the unwanted strawberries. The economic impact of the extreme reduction in sales will have lasting impacts on all growers in Northern New South Wales and Queensland. Their season has just ended and without the capacity to sell products when confidence returns in the market, many growers in these areas will be left with debt to take into next season.
Attention now turns to South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria as their seasons are about to begin. If sale levels continue to be poor, the growers in these areas will face the same financial burden as the farms up north. For the seasons of these growers and next year’s critical season for those up north, consumer confidence must return. Scandals such as this can have lasting effects on the industry.
When listeria was found in rockmelon earlier this year, sales dropped across the nation. Whilst this was not a deliberate attack on the food, it demonstrates how public fear can impact sale levels significantly across an industry. The outbreak was only linked to one farm, however, sales of rockmelon at the time fell by 90%. The industry is still crippled and required a government grant in July to attempt to bring it up from its knees.
The most important next step for the strawberry industry is to restore consumer trust. They must be seen to be implementing steps to protect the consumer. These steps can serve a dual purpose of protecting the company’s brand and owner’s personal liability as well as gaining back the consumer’s trust. Currently, the industry is attempting to do this by advertising the use of metal detectors. Metal detectors are commonplace in other food industries, particularly food factories, but are not mandatory for fruit packing. There is now a rush to implement the detectors across the strawberry industry. However, this is not a guaranteed approach to foil tampering and sabotage. The metal detectors will ensure that no tampering or accidental metal contamination has occurred the during the picking and packaging process. It will not ensure that the product is sabotage free when it leaves the site. There is ample opportunity for sabotage of the product after it has been through a metal detector. The best way to assess the true risk to the business is with a full threat and vulnerability assessment.
A full TACCP and VACCP (Threat Assessment and Critical Control Points and Vulnerability Assessment and Critical Control Points) review and action plan is the most comprehensive means of preventing attacks on food. While a metal detector may be a threat control point, it cannot be the only one. The initial strawberry sabotage is thought to have been conducted by a disgruntled employee. HR management, staff interviews, fair working conditions and site monitoring must all be included in the TACCP and VACCP plan to minimise the risk of a similar attack. Structured staff interaction is needed. When the interaction is conducted by outside interviewers, it allows the staff to feel free to speak openly and honestly. All threats and vulnerabilities must be assessed with critical risks being controlled. Customer facing security solutions can also be included in overall plans to increase faith from the market. Security solutions such as tamper-proof packaging is a tangible means of displaying the increase in security.
While the needles have mainly affected strawberries in this instance, this form of attack is not new. It has been seen in the industry before and can impact any industry. Getting an independent and comprehensive review of your business’s TACCP and VACCP plan goes a long way to completing your due diligence. Doing this work before a scandal breaks out can maintain trust with your consumers and keep yourself ahead of your competitors.
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