Strawberries and scream

From riches to revenge, what’s behind the needles-in-strawberries scare?

Australia’s fruit industry has been plunged into crisis after more than 150 reports to police of needles found in strawberries and other fruit forced produce to be taken off shelves and disrupted exports. It’s the latest episode in a country which has had more than its fair share of food safety scares. “Australia sees a much greater number of malicious product tampering (MPT) incidents in this sector than Europe or the US,” says John Naughton, Product Recall Underwriter at Hiscox London Market, “and one incident can spark a whole host of copycat crimes.”

Needles have been found in fruit from different producers in each of Australia’s six states, and, while serious injury has so far been avoided, at least two people have required hospital treatment. On 11 November, police in Brisbane made their first significant breakthrough, arresting a 50 year old woman, who was a former supervisor at a strawberry farm, after tracing her DNA.

Some growers, already operating on thin margins, have been unable to keep selling the new produce they pick, while the strawberries that did sell were going for half their usual cost.

In an attempt to end the crisis and protect the country’s food business, the Australian government has announced tougher sentences of ten to 15 years in jail for those caught tampering with food products. The Queensland state government has also offered a reward of A$100,000 for help in trying to catch the culprits, warning that the scare risks ruining the country’s strawberry industry – a business worth A$130 million in Queensland alone. Some growers, already operating on thin margins, have been unable to keep selling the new produce they pick, while the strawberries that did sell were going for half their usual cost.

Fruit industry in a jam

Dr Emmeline Taylor, Senior Lecturer in Criminology at City University of London, says while malicious food tampering has a long history and is not limited to Australia, it is perhaps more common in fresh fruit and other farm produce in Australia as a result of the country’s relatively large agricultural industry. “More than 90% of fresh fruit and vegetables, meat, milk and eggs sold in supermarkets are domestically produced. This means that disgruntled employees have a higher likelihood of working in this industry compared to other countries and ready access to the opportunity to tamper directly with fresh fruit.”

 

Effective quality control procedures are critical while the product is still within a producer’s control, but once the product has left that environment, it can be very difficult to prevent tampering.

Out of control

Fruit and vegetable produce are also particularly vulnerable once they have left the producer’s control given they can’t be packaged in the same way as other foodstuffs, says Hiscox’s Naughton. “Effective quality control procedures are critical while the product is still within a producer’s control, but once the product has left that environment, it can be very difficult to prevent tampering.” The growing trend for fruit and vegetables to be sold loose and unpackaged for environmental reasons also has the unintended consequence that they can be easier to tamper with. 

An uncomfortable history

Malicious product tampering had its first real public outing in the infamous Tylenol cases in Chicago in the 1980s, when bottles of the painkiller were found to contain cyanide. Several people died after taking the drug in a case that led to the development of tamper-proof packaging. Despite an arrest being made for an attempted extortion, no one has ever been found guilty of the poisonings.

 

“The pharmaceutical industry tends to be at more risk of malicious tampering because it is particularly vulnerable to protest groups such as animal rights campaigners.

“The pharmaceutical industry tends to be at more risk of malicious tampering because it is particularly vulnerable to protest groups such as animal rights campaigners,” says Naughton. Other notorious cases include the poisoning of bottled water in Italy in 2013, which led to around 30 people being hospitalised. Baby food has also been a particular target. In 1989, glass, razor blades and caustic soda were found in products from two of the largest manufacturers in the UK. In this case, which also sparked numerous copycat incidents, the perpetrator attempted to extort money from one of the manufacturers. 

The malicious motivation

The motivations to carry out such a crime are varied, says Taylor, but can generally be divided into two categories: instrumental gain and sabotage. “Instrumental gain is where the perpetrator wants something in return – it’s a form of blackmail. That could be money, a change in the law, or a politically motivated attack.”

Sabotage however has different characteristics. “The perpetrator who sabotages products without any demand or threat wants to create an atmosphere of fear and diffuse the impact. History tells us these individuals are more likely to be disgruntled employees who hold a personal vendetta against a company for a perceived wrong, such as being overlooked for a promotion, made redundant, or recently sacked,” says Taylor.

The Australian needle scare has prompted an increase in the number of enquiries to the London Market.

In both scenarios the perpetrator takes advantage of a method that distances them from the victims, Taylor says: “The perpetrator would most likely not be able to or wish to inflict pain or suffering directly: previous cases tell us that they are typically not violent individuals. But, by introducing distance and a possibility that the needles will be found before causing damage, they can ride out any cognitive dissonance that their malicious act produces. There are parallels with people who send anonymous explosives in the mail. Although thankfully rare, it is also a comparatively easy crime to commit and the complexity of the industry chain makes it difficult to track down the offender.”

Producers look for protection

The Australian needle scare has prompted an increase in the number of enquiries to the London Market, says Naughton. “Many Australian fruit and vegetable producers had perhaps not considered the likelihood of a malicious tampering issue.” Existing cover is usually provided for accidental contamination of a product – a piece of machinery breaking off and becoming embedded within a food product, for example – but it will normally include MPT as standard.

It’s critical that businesses buying this cover ensure it also offers the additional consultancy services that companies really need in an emergency, Naughton adds. Particularly when it comes to brand protection, liaising with the police and regulators on the safety of the product, managing the public relations crisis, as well as advising on additional measures such as the hire of portable metal detectors to mitigate the destruction of products. “It’s not just about the cost of product recall but also how a business protects and rebuilds its brand after the crisis is over. If they fail to do that, there may simply be no business left in the longer term.”

 

It’s not just about the cost of product recall but also how a business protects and rebuilds its brand after the crisis is over.

Share the risk

Malicious tampering is a risk that can’t be eradicated, despite the efforts of governments, regulators and the producers. But it can be managed. “Businesses must decide whether they are comfortable carrying that risk themselves or whether they prefer to share some of that financial liability by buying appropriate cover,” concludes Naughton.

 

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