Blog #7 – Is this the un-mitigatable risk?

I, like many other strawberry lovers in Australia, was horrified when the first case of a needle found in a strawberry was reported in mid-September.  It was quickly followed by another and then another.  Early on, it seemed isolated to one farm and one type of fruit, with speculation of involvement by a disgruntled employee or ex-employee.

A spate of suspected ‘copycat’ activity resulted in cases being reported in every state of the country and it soon spread beyond just strawberries to apples and bananas.

Let’s be clear here – this is not the same as the contamination issues we have seen with rock melons or even with imported frozen berries – this is deliberate; criminal; and, in my opinion, may just be the un-preventable risk.  I don’t mean that there is nothing that can be done – what I mean here is that only so much can be done.  If someone has intent – then, in my view, it is almost impossible (if not impossible to prevent).

We have had some very high-profile cases in Australia over the years and it has been an issue across the world.

Tylenol

The Chicago Tylenol murders were a series of poisoning deaths resulting from drug tampering in the Chicago metropolitan area in 1982. The victims had all taken Tylenol-branded acetaminophen capsules that had been laced with potassium cyanide. A total of seven people died in the original poisonings, with several more deaths in subsequent copycat crimes.

Herron

In February 2000, two people were poisoned by a packet of Herron paracetamol that had been laced with Strychnine.  An attempt at extortion was also made against Panadol in the following month as another person was affected by Strychnine poisoning.

Both cases led to significant recalls with the perpetrator not caught until December of 2000.  The person arrested and charged was the husband of the third victim.

The Risk

I have advised food, beverage and alcohol providers in the past and the common risk I use related to this issue is:

Contaminated product purchased and/or consumed by customers.

This is not just a case of soggy or damaged product to the customer – this is product that is contaminated in some way. That contamination could be one that leads to an illness (e.g. rock melon contamination) or, as is the case with the recent crisis – the introduction of foreign objects into the product.  There is, therefore, a preventable element – but then there is the element that is well outside the control of the manufacturer/producer.

The challenge in relation to this risk is that, once the goods have left the manufacturer’s premises, there are so many things that can go wrong over which they have no control.  The manufacturer/producer can do everything in their power until the point it leaves their premises – at which point their control level diminishes significantly – but the accountability (i.e. potential reputation damage) does not.

Below are some causes and controls for this risk and, as you can see, once it has left the grower’s farm, control diminishes significantly and quickly:

 

Contaminated product purchased and/or consumed by customers
Causes Example Controls
Deliberate act by an employee/other person during growing/picking

·     Quality control processes in the facility

·     Scanning for foreign objects (e.g. metal detectors)

Lack of/ineffective cleaning of product prior to transportation

·     Regular maintenance of machinery used for cleaning of product

·     Quality control processes at the facility

·     Non-toxic pesticides used (if not organic)

Lack of/ineffective housekeeping (allowing foreign materials to be introduced into the production/packaging process)

·     Regular inspections

·     Policies relating to items that are banned from certain areas of the facility

·     Rapid response protocols when foreign objects may be discovered that can potentially be introduced into the packaging process

Lack of/ineffective maintenance of machinery/equipment

·     Preventative maintenance program

·     Inspection and certification program

·     Machinery replacement program

Deliberate action by an employee involved in production/packing

·     Quality control processes in the facility

·     Scanning for foreign objects (e.g. metal detectors)

Lack of security of the load during transportation/transit

·     Load security requirements during transportation written into contract

·     At the transit point/warehouse – the product is now owned by the customer, so it is not possible to impose any restrictions on security

Deliberate action by a person at the point of sale ·     Outside the control of the grower
Deliberate act by a customer after sale ·     Outside the control of the grower

In this case there was the added element of the copycat, which further exacerbated the issue.

The other issue that this incident highlighted is the impact that it can have on an entire industry as an already struggling strawberry industry saw a significant drop in consumer confidence and a considerable drop in sales.

The point of all of this is, for industries that develop products for consumption, there is just so much that can be done up to dispatch to prevent contaminated products being consumed, but, once they leave the facility, control is lost.

Fortunately, this crisis seems to have been relatively short-lived and, now a person has been arrested in relation to the contamination, however, even a few months on, I know of people who will not eat strawberries unless they have first cut them.  The crisis may be short-lived, but the impacts certainly won’t be.

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