The integrity of our food supply chain has become ever more important as the global market place has shrunk thanks to improved freight options.
News of sewing needles being found in Australian strawberry crops has shocked many in New Zealand used to picking up the early season berries from their local supermarkets.
The issue is fast turning into one of Australia’s biggest food scares. It has halted exports to New Zealand and forced at least one strawberry farm to start dumping its fruit at the peak of the season. Another farm is installing metal detectors.
The needles, originally found in strawberries produced from one supplier in the northern state of Queensland, are now turning up around the country.
Police in New South Wales say needles have been found in more than 20 strawberry punnets, and there were reports a banana and apple also had needles in them.
A young boy has been arrested in Australia after sticking needles into strawberries for “a prank”.
New South Wales detectives arrested him on Wednesday, but others have been copying his behaviour, leading to the fruit contamination crisis.
Because of the boy’s age, he will not fall foul of the state’s strict laws on fruit contamination, which can even land guilty parties with sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Copycat offenders face a different fate if caught.
Farmers have been shown tipping out container-loads of strawberries because they cannot take the risk their crop has been damaged, leading to a focus on how vulnerable consumers are to food terrorism.
The boy considered he was playing a prank when in fact he endangered lives and put the livelihoods of strawberry farmers at risk. The chance more people will follow suit is high, just like those who light Australian bushfires to watch them burn.
The more complex and internationalised a supply chain becomes, the harder it is to have effective control over what happens to the product as it travels within the chain.
Over time, most supply chains grow to involve intermediary organisations, and each is assumed to be taking ownership of quality at their point in the chain.
But any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. Integrity in the overall system is increasingly difficult to assure.
Within factories and processing plants, well-established process controls and sample-based inspection plans can detect normal processing variations. Metal detectors, visual, chemical and other checks act as a last line of defence before products leave the loading bay.
The New Zealand Science Centre says as the product moves in a complex path from grower/processor to exporter to shipping company to retailer to customer, there is ample opportunity for those who are so inclined to deliberately adulterate the product.
The tainted milk powder in China, which caused the death and starvation of infants, is still fresh. Fast food chains have also faced food sabotage.
Experts say wilful sabotage and illegal behaviour is almost impossible to guard against since inventive individuals can potentially adulterate product with metal, glass, wood, biological or chemical hazards and contaminants. Past examples have included dead animals and bodily fluids.
There is no easy answer to preventing an aggrieved person, or in fact a terrorist, contaminating the food turning up on supermarket shelves. Buying locally can provide a level of safety, but it is not always convenient.
Suggestions of airport-style security checks on products at ports of entry or by the final retailers will be cost prohibitive. And it is difficult to imagine what sort of checks or equipment will be needed at entry points to identify all conceivable contaminants.
Food terrorism and illegal behaviour in national and international supply chains is not new and remains an ever-present threat. Consumers and suppliers will need to stay vigilant, providing the barrier to hopefully prevent further pranks and copycat incidents.