Friday, 27 March 2015

Needles in Potatoes: The Costs Keep Rising

As a reporter I always admired people who fought for what they believe in, even those who worked around the edges of the law.  I wasn't sure what to think when I first heard about needles found in potatoes.  The "how" was kind of interesting to think through, the "who" had a few candidates, and the "why"  had some logic, but when I had the chance to talk to some of the people directly involved I found it way more troubling (and making potato industry people upset and worried was obviously just what was wanted). I did write this column back in January, and this week I noticed a poster that reminded me this is still an outstanding issue. More than that it's now costing potato packers millions as they gear up to protect their markets. If enriching German and American security machine manufacturers was the goal of this campaign, it's succeeded, but I'm not sure what else it's done.

Needles Not the Answer

It was a pretty good year for people concerned with the environmental footprint of the potato industry.  Horace Carver listened to those who want to retain landownership regulations, and not increase the current limits for land that can be cropped. Just over a year ago the government was ready to end a decade long moratorium on new high capacity irrigation wells, but public outcry, an avalanche of newspaper opinion pieces, and dozens of presentations to a legislative committee put the brakes on. The government has promised a comprehensive process including public hearings, and new research to develop a Water Act before considering new permits again.  And there’s more: the new ability of major municipalities to outlaw cosmetic pesticide use (more restrictive than some wanted),  the closure of the McCain French Fry Plant, west prince farmer Warren Ellis’s steep fine for a series of fish kills in Barclay Brook, the purchase of Ellis’s land by the province and Cavendish Farms and handing it over to the Trout River Watershed group, continued growth in the organic food sector, the ongoing research by Steve Watts showing that farmers can cut back on fertilizer use and produce the same or better quality and size in their crop and cut down on nitrate pollution. Yes there was a serious fish kill in the North River, but it wasn’t caused by a potato grower. So it’s fair to say that the “green team” made some gains.  And sticking needles into potatoes had nothing to do with any of this. 

This isn’t going to be an easy  year for potato growers, but it’s not because of the widespread publicity of a dozen or so discoveries of needles in PEI potatoes.  There is simply an oversupply in North America.  The only “needle” victims are the Linkletter family, and their employees. Half the staff has been laid off for monthes in what would normally be a very busy time leading up to American Thanksgiving, and Christmas. Liability insurance may cover some of this, but the Linkletters are facing huge costs recalling thousands of pounds of potatoes, and will now spend more than two hundred thousand as well on metal detecting  equipment. “Link” potatoes has an excellent reputation for quality and has had it for decades, but the Linkletters know that another round of needles found in potato bags could easily kill their fresh market business for good.  There are simply too many other good suppliers out there to take their place.

If the person or group behind the needles wants to hurt the Linkletters directly for whatever reason, he/she/they are succeeding, but don’t forget to include the dozens of packing plant workers and their families punished by this as well. If the idea is to intimidate the potato industry by taking on the most high profile grower in the province (Gary Linkletter,  now past-chair of the PEI Potato Board) it hasn’t succeeded. The industry is simply too big, and market forces too powerful for this to have much impact. If anything it’s brought the industry closer together by the joint effort to raise reward money.  If the action is to get the government to work harder to protect natural resources, again it’s failed. It’s the efforts by many individuals and community groups to push the government to improve and properly enforce regulations that has created some momentum, not sabotaging a handful of potatoes.

It’s been interesting watching the national media pick up on this story. The contrast between the bucolic nature of PEI, its natural beauty, and heavy pesticide use and dead fish is just too tempting for journalists from away to ignore. It took a National Post reporter to finally state what was being talked about in the coffee shops: could this be direct action by a committed environmentalist or environmental group? The usual suspects were spoken to. They denied it, and I believe them, but this certainly would explain the considerable resources and time the RCMP has thrown at the case.   It may seem like overkill, but federal agencies like the RCMP, and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency must be seen as aggressively overseeing food production to keep the Americans happy.  Potato growers and packers in Maine are always on the lookout for trouble in PEI and New Brunswick in the hopes of slowing down Canadian imports. It doesn’t end there. After 9-11, the new Department of Homeland Security played hardball with anyone shipping food into the United States. Line workers and truck drivers had to be screened,   food tracing protocols had to be implemented.  All of  this is now the cost of doing business, costs that can’t be passed on to consumers.  And now checking for needles in potatoes has become a new cost of doing business for at least one big packing operation.

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