The Strawberry Incident—Keeping Food Safe with Standards
I have been working in the food industry since 1987 and I have seen a lot of things you wouldn’t believe to be possible. ”Terrorists” are not your biggest threat: disgruntled workers and greedy customers can cause irreparable damage to your brand and industry. TACCP (Threat Assessment and Critical Control Points), metal detectors and what we can really do to minimise the risks from these events is what I would like to explain in this short text.
Let me start with an example; in September 2018, a food tampering incident occurred involving sewing needles inserted into Australian strawberries. Initially an isolated event in Queensland, the incident escalated to other states and territories involving multiple tampering events in strawberries and other fruit across the country. Only a few instances were believed by authorities to be associated with the original event with most other instances believed to multiple hoax or ‘copycat’ events (FSANZ October 2018).
The event resulted in 231 fruit contaminations across Australia. 68 brands were affected including 186 incidents involving strawberries. At least 15 incidents have been confirmed as hoax or false reports. Only 3 brands were confirmed as actual sabotage – not post purchase tampering. The person allegedly responsible for this event has been charged and is awaiting sentencing for her crimes.
At the height of the strawberry season in Australia this is one of the worst possible outcomes, but there is always the possibility that other incidents may occur. As a food manufacturer and packer, you need to make sure that the products you offer are safe and of appropriate integrity. There are some simple, cost-effective control measures that any company can use to prevent such problems from arising in the first place:
- Policies to manage employees including fair treatment of and dismissal protocols.
- Security measures such as CCTV, restricted access areas and site security for the facility/product/packaging/inputs.
A side note if locking cold rooms: ensure you consider health and safety. A previous boss of mine had been deliberately locked in a cold room as a 15-year-old apprentice. The cost of prevention is minimal compared to the costs for doing nothing: potentially catastrophic.
- Awareness for all personnel to report rumours, suspicious activity, unaccompanied visitors and similar. Ensure open communication. Documented Tool box meetings. See (& hear) something, say something.
- Carry out site security assessments/challenges. I have done numerous assessments over the 12 months for clients. Every single site has failed.
- Training and once again awareness of the implications of such actions. Include legal responsibilities & penalties. Some things start as a joke. See comment above about cold rooms.
- Removal of and restricted access to things like staples, tacks, workshop equipment, workshop area, baits, poisons, cleaning chemicals and similar. I know of cases in USA & Australia where these have been used.
- Creating an overall culture within the company that embraces all possible ways to manage the risks. Ensure open communication. Really listen to the people on the floor.
Metal detectors, X-rays, magnets & tamper-proof packaging can all be good, even though sometimes expensive deterrents. I do know of a previous client in the EU that did have all of these things on their berry line in 2007 but still had a live rodent placed into the clear heat-sealed pack by a disgruntled staff member, with help from their mates. We tracked down that person within 45 minutes due to the technology on the line, whilst the rodent was still bouncing around in the berry pack at the store…
What I want to say is that the costs for doing all these things is minimal. The costs for not doing anything is potentially catastrophic. The example at the beginning of this text serves as a reminder for this. Some producers had to destroy their entire stock and the costs where devastating for some of them.
Of course, Australian politicians had to come up with something after this incident, I think the Queensland Government report provided a good assessment of the strength and weaknesses of the industry and areas for improvement.
Our neighbours in New Zealand also imposed new regulations and stricter penalties for those who contaminate food.
In the end, I believe that this will be the right way to continue to have confidence in the food we buy in stores.