Begin typing your search above and press return to search. Press Esc to cancel.
Strawberries

Strawberry fields doing it tough … but not forever

Back In 2006, a family restaurant chain turning over millions of dollars a year, with outlets across most states and employing thousands of people, had a near-death experience.

There on the salad bar, by the soup and the pasta, near the beetroot and chopped carrots, was a scattering of rat poison pellets.

The discovery at two of its Brisbane outlets shook Sizzler to its core.

Salad bars across the country — responsible for a reported 60 per cent of the restaurant’s revenue — were shut for weeks.

Millions of dollars were lost and more spent on upgrading security.

While the individual believed responsible was arrested and placed in psychiatric care, it was a blow from which Sizzlers never quite recovered.

That’s the power — and also the speed — that a food tampering crisis can have, and it is a salient lesson for smaller, less financially robust and now reeling strawberry producers across the country.

WA police say they are now investigating at least five reports of needles in strawberries, from York, Kelmscott, Spearwood, Bull Creek and Willetton. In the latest case today, a primary school student bit into a strawberry with a needle inside.

That takes the geographic spread of pins and needles found in strawberries to WA, NSW, Queensland, Tasmania and South Australia.

Coles and Woolworths have stripped shelves at stores across the country; exports to a major New Zealand chain have halted.

Calling it a “terrorism act”, strawberry growers are now dumping their own stock, even setting fire to plants as it is more cost effective than trying to pick the unwanted fruit.

The latest crisis — and that of Sizzler — represents the intersection of multiple issues when trying to contain a single issue.

The first challenge for growers is to understand the risk posed by this threat has little to do with the likelihood that someone might be hurt.

A man was initially hospitalised after eating a strawberry with a needle in it in Queensland but the remainder of the objects since have been found without being swallowed.

But that matters little right now as far as public perception is concerned.

What you have is the combination of a threat so unusual that it becomes newsworthy and the fact that millions of people around the country might eat strawberries on any given day.

Like terrorism or shark attacks, people tend to overestimate the risk that is potentially posed by rare or unusual threats when the action that might put them at risk is something highly common.

It’s why Americans after 9/11 believed they personally had a 20 per cent chance of being hurt by a terrorist.

It’s also why people stay out of the water, even though the risk of being killed by a shark is roughly one in 3.5 million, but dying in a car crash is about one in 84.

When it comes to rare risk and public behaviour the maths doesn’t matter. If people are afraid that someone is spiking (literally) their strawberries, they will stop buying. They are likely to stop buying some other fruits as well, now the situation has seemingly spread to apples and bananas. They may even stop buying (irrational as it may seem) strawberry-flavoured goods or smoothies, where no needle could possibly lurk.

Of the 69 food recalls in Australia in 2017, only 10 involved foreign matter, usually from the production process.

Food Standards Australia says tampering — which would apply in the case of these strawberries — is “consistently (one of) the least common reasons for recall.

But the cost of any food recall to a company averages $10 million in direct costs, according to US figures, and there are fears this latest crisis will wipe tens if not hundreds of millions off Australia’s $500m strawberry industry.

The second issue for the sector to understand is how to start recovering from this crisis once it subsides — either when there are no more incidents or a culprit (or culprits) are caught.

That’s because the long-term brand impact of a recall can be worse than the initial sales hit: In one poll by Harris Interactive, consumers indicated that 55 per cent would switch brands temporarily following a recall.

But 15 per cent said they would never purchase the recalled product again no matter the manufacturer

One in five said they would avoid purchasing any brand made by the manufacturer of the recalled product.

The impact is also felt by food producers who are not part of the recall as well. Even before WA was caught up in the latest issue, there had been a drop in local sales. Studies of car recalls have also found innocent brands ‘contaminated’ by recall news pushed via social media.

So what does recovery look like?

The best advice for the sector now is to contain and communicate. There’s genuine affection for strawberries and strawberry growers that needs to be leveraged in speaking to the public about the threat. The emergence of a #smashastrawb hashtag is evidence of that.

Be clear about the causes and costs. This is not the result of poor farming practice, but a very real and deliberate sabotage by a person or persons unknown.

And tell the stories of those affected — now and during the recovery phase. There are many farmers right now who rightly wonder if it is worth getting out of bed in the morning, but when things get better (and they will) those same farmers will need to be telling the story of why a strawberry cheesecake is the best way to celebrate getting back to business.

Ruth Callaghan is Cannings Purple’s Chief Innovation Officer and has more than 20 years’ experience working in journalism and media strategy. Contact Ruth.

More from Ruth: