Industry determined to emerge strong from tampering crisis
Safe spuds — the very safest. Attaining that distinction in Prince Edward Island, in the wake of devastating harm delivered by potato tampering, is the firm expectation of P.E.I. Potato Board GM Greg Donald.
Ultimately, Donald believes P.E.I., the country’s largest potato producing province, will not only survive but thrive after being hit with what one longtime Island grower has called the worst crisis the industry has faced here over his many years of growing spuds.
Yes, the potato tampering, which continues to be investigated by the RCMP with no arrest to date, has left the industry reeling. Metal objects found in some potatoes are expected to cost the affected farms about $1 million in lost sales.
The cost in any reduced consumer confidence in P.E.I. spuds is more difficult to measure, but could be considerable if the crisis is not well addressed.
The industry, though, has been aggressive in response to the criminal action.
A reward for information leading to police catching the guilty party or parties has been hiked to a whopping $500,000. But more importantly, perhaps, is the attention being placed on reducing the risk of any potentially harmful potato tampering taking place in the future.
The federal government is putting up $1.5 million to help Island farmers acquire and install equipment to detect and remove foreign material.
P.E.I. Potato Solutions (PPS), which opened in New Annan in January 2014 to wash and sort potatoes using top industry equipment, has spent $360,000 on sophisticated metal detection equipment in direct response to the tampering crisis.
The machine went into operation at the start of this month.
A demonstration was given to local reporters earlier this month during a farm tour organized by the P.E.I. Federation of Agriculture, the P.E.I. Potato Board and the P.E.I. Department of Agriculture and Fisheries.
PPS manager Chris Hunt inserted a sewing needle into a potato, which was coloured bright red just to be on the safe side, then placed the spud on a conveyor belt along with piles of potatoes rolling through the impressive washing and sorting system.
The machine, which sends a frequency down through all the potatoes that it runs across, detected the tainted potato and spit it out into a bucket in both of two demonstrations.
Hunt beamed as he pulled the red potato containing the sewing needle from a bucket.
“Our hope with this is to make a difference in this industry,’’ he told The Guardian.
“We don’t want this industry to suffer because of one person or a group of people’s actions. We need this industry to survive. So if this is something that we need to do to help that, we’ll do everything we can.’’
The PPS plant sorts and cleans 140,000 pounds of potatoes per hour — that’s roughly two tractor-trailer loads.
Donald is hopeful this plant combined with other metal detection equipment being installed across the province will help earn P.E.I. the stamp of industry leader in getting potatoes safely to market.
“We continue today to have a strong reputation for having good quality and safe food,’’ he said.
“So this (potato tampering) has been a tremendous threat to that reputation.’’
“When all is said and done,’’ he added confidently, “we will have the safest potatoes in the world. So we will not only maintain the reputation, we will improve it.’’
Thea Barker and her grandfather Jim Morrison, shop for some new P.E.I. potatoes at Jewell’s Country Market recently. Island farmers are taking steps to reduce the risk of tampering, while reassuring consumers their potatoes are safe.
Potatoes rolling through the washing and sorting system of P.E.I. Potato Solutions in New Annan have also been passing through a metal detector for the past two weeks. The company installed the expensive equipment in response to the potato tampering incidents in the province.