Are food terrorists sabotaging spuds to protest “pesticide pestilence”? If not them, then who? And what are farmers doing to fight back?
If you want to know how much potatoes matter in Prince Edward Island, start with the simple fact that its people are known as Spud Islanders, and that they’ve been growing the starchy but nutritious tuber for over 250 years. When the British expelled the Acadians from Île Saint-Jean way back in 1758, the story goes, British soldiers carried with them potatoes. The potatoes prospered in the Island’s moderate climate and reddish brown, sandy, clay-like, iron oxide-rich soil. And the rest, as they say, is history. And family. Many of today’s 330 Island potato farmers can trace their tuber roots back generations. Some, the Linkletters of Summerside, for example, meander all the way back to the late 1700s.
The potato is still Prince Edward Island’s chief cash crop. It’s become a one-billion-dollar industry that employs 12 per cent of the provincial work force and represents 10 per cent of the Island economy. P.E.I. produces one quarter of all the potatoes grown in Canada. No mean feat, considering it is also Canada’s smallest, least populous province with fewer than 150,000 inhabitants and a land mass that occupies a miniscule 0.1 per cent of the whole country.
The love affair between Islanders and their potatoes, however, goes well beyond dollars and impressive numbers. Potatoes are an existential part of the Island zeitgeist. There’s the annual Potato Blossom Festival in July, for example, where they crown “Miss Potato Blossom,” and even “Little Miss Potato Blossom.” And then there’s the Canadian Potato Museum in O’Leary, “a living testament to the humble tuber and those who have tilled the soil in its evolution.” The museum attracts 10,000 visitors a year, many of whom pose for pictures in front of its signature “world’s largest potato” sculpture. Not to forget (who could forget?), “Bud the Spud from the bright red mud,” Stompin’ Tom’s anthemic ode to the Island icon.
Set against that economic and cultural confluence, the shock waves that rumbled like thunder across the Island in the first week of October 2014 when workers on the french fry line at the Cavendish Farms processing plant in New Annan discovered a piece of metal embedded in a potato begin to make sense.
“My first reaction,” remembers Greg Donald, general manager of the P.E.I. Potato Board, the industry-promoting organization, “was that it must have been accidental. Maybe someone was planting on what had been an old homestead, and maybe turned over a nail that somehow got embedded in a potato. The idea that it could be a malicious act didn’t even occur to me.”
But then he learned the metal object was a sewing needle. And that more than one had been found. “My second reaction was, ‘how could someone?…’”
Cavendish officials quickly halted production and tracked the needles back to a shipment from Linkletter Farms, whose general manager, Gary Linkletter, happened to be the chair of the potato board. “Ask in Toronto, ask anywhere,” Donald says. “‘Who is the most reputable potato farmer around?’ Linkletter will be the first name mentioned.”
As good as his reputation, Gary Linkletter immediately and voluntarily recalled the 800,000 pounds of his farm’s potatoes then still in the marketplace, and promised not to ship any more until he could assure customers his produce was safe.
The recalled potatoes were trucked back to an RCMP-secured warehouse where workers emptied bag after bag and examined every potato, initially using an X-ray machine and, later, metal detectors. That effort turned up three more sewing needles buried in the potato stacks.
But that wouldn’t be the end of the industry’s bad news and worse publicity. On October 8, a needle was found in a potato in a grocery store in Noggin Cove, Newfoundland. Less than a week later, another turned up in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and, a few days after that, in Labrador City. In all, police reported seven more potatoes with needles — all traced back to the original Linkletter farm product codes — had been discovered in retail outlets in all four Atlantic provinces.
Discovering someone had stuck sewing needles in his potatoes was, Gary Linkletter told a reporter at the time, “like [being] a deer in the headlights. You don’t know what’s hit you.”
The potato tampering story quickly went viral (potatoes, it’s worth noting, are the world’s fourth largest food crop), becoming national, even international news. That, not surprisingly, triggered what the British newspaper, The Guardian — yes, it even made news over there — described as “the most serious crisis to hit sleepy P.E.I. since the British conquest of Acadia in 1710.”
Perhaps not surprisingly as well, the story triggered memories of other food tampering incidents, including the infamous 1982 case in which seven people in Chicago died after taking Tylenol laced with cyanide. While no one was ever convicted in that case, Johnson & Johnson’s deft handling of what could have been a corporate catastrophe is now considered a road map for any organization dealing with a similar incident.
Greg Donald remembers the Tylenol case well. He also recalled a 2008 Canadian incident in which listeria bacteria was discovered in some Maple Leaf packaged meat products. It wasn’t exactly the same (the meats hadn’t been deliberately tampered with), but it was close enough to draw parallel lessons. While company lawyers and spin doctors had counseled caution and convolution in order to minimize legal liabilities, Maple Leaf president Michael McCain ignored them. He went on TV himself to accept responsibility. “It’s our fault and we’re going to fix it.” McCain’s forthrightness, the Globe and Mail concluded later, “may have saved the company.”
“The first and foremost thing,” says Donald, “is to think strategically.” The potato board had already done its share of that. “We’d talked about what’s the worst thing that could happen… but no one had ever dreamed this,” he adds quickly. “Which is where we started from, to be honest. But we quickly developed a game plan. We weren’t going to worry about the cost of safety. We were going to improve it.”
The potato board reached out to experts and national organizations that had dealt with similar crises and asked for advice. It hired a food processing expert to investigate “the technology options available to growers and dealers for detecting foreign materials in potatoes,” including not just sewing needles but also glass and even golf balls. After considering every option from infra-red scanners to chemical testers, farmers ultimately settled on the idea of installing sophisticated metal detectors.
The problem was that those detectors would cost Island farmers up to $10 million “and there would be no return on the investment from the market.” So the board approached Ottawa and the provincial government for help. Under a program that pays up to 35 per cent of the cost of buying a metal detector (up to $30,000 for small operators and $100,000 for large farms), 43 farmers have so far installed the equipment and more have applied.
A few farmers have complained about the cost they still have to bear and disputed the need for such expensive technology to deal with what they believe is more a PR problem than a health issue (since potatoes are almost always peeled, sliced, diced or mashed before they ever make it to our mouths, even sewing needles represent an unlikely human health hazard). Still, most farmers have bought into the board’s safety-first game plan.
Including the influential Gary Linkletter, whose proactive response began even before the game plan. “There is certainly a loss,” he allowed of the fact he’d had to destroy 800,000 pounds of potatoes and shut down much of his operation for two months while his new metal detection equipment was installed, “but that’s fine. That’s the price we are paying for what’s happened,” said Linkletter. “The big thing is that we get back in operation.”
In addition to upping the potato industry’s safety game, many Island farmers were also keen to get more directly involved in tracking down the tamperer (or tamperers) responsible for the sabotage. “But that was really up to the Mounties,” Donald says, so the farmers settled for establishing a substantial reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever was responsible.
Within a month after the the first needles were found, the P.E.I. Potato Board had posted a reward of $50,000 “to encourage anyone with knowledge concerning this attack on food safety to come forward.” By the end of December, with few leads, they’d doubled the amount to $100,000. The money for the reward has come mostly from producers, Donald says, but they’ve also received donations from suppliers and individuals; the largest a $25,000 contribution from Manitoba.
But neither the reward nor the Mounties’ investigation (officers interviewed hundreds of people from farm employees to environmental activists to farm field neighbours, and sent the potatoes to outside labs for testing in what RCMP spokesperson Sgt. Leanne Butler called “a unique investigation”) produced an arrest.
In fact, in May 2015, the RCMP announced that more nails had been found in more bags of table potatoes purchased from supermarkets in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island. And the potatoes this time had come from other producers. There were even a few reports of what appeared to be people trying to cash in on the publicity, sticking foreign objects in freshly purchased potatoes and reporting it to the authorities.
Alex Docherty, who took over from Gary Linkletter as chair of the potato board in January, described what was happening as “food terrorism. The people doing this are cowards, lower than a snake wearing snowshoes. These are really evil people.”
Gary Linkletter remained more nuanced — “Whoever did this has a little problem,” he told a reporter, “and was not in control of all their faculties” — but no less frustrated.
In late June, the potato board upped its reward to a stunning $500,000, but tacked on a deadline of the middle of August — which is the beginning of the harvest — for someone to come forward, in hopes of heading off more discoveries of more unwelcome objects before this year’s crop can make it to market.
While the rewards escalate and the Mounties investigate, the central questions remain: Who did it? And why?
Although Greg Donald does his best to downplay speculation — “I tell people, ‘Stop trying to do that. Why does it matter? It could be anyone’” — speculating has become the Island’s favourite coffee shop sport. A potato industry employee with a grudge? A teenaged prankster, or pranksters? A deranged, angry-at-someone, lone-wolf potato terrorist? Or perhaps, as National Post reporter Joe O’Connor paraphrased a farmer he spoke with this summer: “a bunch of tree-huggers who view the potato industry as a pesticide dependent pestilence.”
That is what many people in the industry suspect.
Sharon Labchuk, the former leader of Prince Edward Island’s Green Party and coordinator of Earth Action, a local environmental group, might charitably — or uncharitably, depending on your view — be described as a “tree hugger,” and, while “pesticide dependent pestilence” is not her phrase, she has been leading a crusade against what she sees as the over-use of agricultural pesticides on the Island for years.
Early in its investigation, the RCMP did call her, not to accuse her of being involved but to find out if she’d heard anything that could be useful. “You know, they chat you up, all friendly — What did I know? Had I heard anything?” She wasn’t offended. Though she says she learned about the tampering from news reports like everyone else, “calling me probably did make sense. I know a lot of people. I’ve been involved for 20 years.”
Although sometimes dismissed as an eco come-from-away, “probably because of my last name,” Labchuk is also an enthusiastic amateur genealogist who has traced her own family presence on the Island back to “some of the very first settlers” of 1770.
Her version of the evolution of what she sees as Prince Edward Island’s potato industry problem isn’t nearly as upbeat as the potato board’s. She traces its beginnings back to the early 1980s when J. D. Irving Limited bought a P.E.I.-based frozen vegetable and french fry maker, changed its name to Cavendish Farms and made what the company calls “a strategic decision to focus exclusively on frozen potatoes with a vision to become ‘the potato specialists.’”
“That,” says Labchuk, “encouraged rampant uncontrolled growth of the industry.” Beginning in the late 1980s, Labchuk notes, there was a 70 per cent increase in the number of acres dedicated to potatoes, and an even more massive — “a whopping 571 per cent” — jump in the use of agricultural pesticides.
“A P.E.I. potato destined for the dinner table is subjected to about 20 applications of pesticide,” she explains, including primarily blight pesticides, “all classed by the U.S. government as probable human carcinogens.”
The potato industry of course disputes any suggestion the pesticides it uses are dangerous. Which may explain why the board recently brought Dr. Len Ritter, a professor emeritus at the University of Guelph, to Charlottetown to publicize his research into pesticides. P.E.I., he claimed, had lower rates of non-Hodgkin lymphoma — the cancer most often associated with pesticides — than anywhere else in Canada. “If pesticides were driving [cancer rates],” he told the Charlottetown Guardian, “you would expect the reverse to be true.”
“It shouldn’t be a surprise that the P.E.I. Potato Board brought in pesticide propagandist Dr. Len Ritter to assure us that pesticides don’t cause cancer,” Labchuk countered in a letter to the editor. “Those of us active in the 1990s campaign to block Monsanto’s genetically engineered bovine growth hormone from registration in Canada remember well the scandal from that process, and Ritter, then a Health Canada official, as Monsanto’s cheerleader… Ritter says pesticides are too difficult for the average Canadian to understand, that we should quit worrying and leave it up to the experts,” she added. “Inhale deeply and don’t miss your chemo appointment.”
There is, it is fair to say, no love lost between P.E.I.’s powerful potato industry and the Island’s still-tiny environmental movement.
Last year, Labchuk’s group called on the provincial government to release annual pesticide sales figures it is required by law to compile but hasn’t publicly disclosed since 2008, and to create an accessible pesticide use reporting system so people can see what is actually being sprayed where and when.
Ironically, despite its small size and rural character, Labchuk points out that Prince Edward Island is actually the most densely populated province in the country, meaning almost everyone lives cheek by jowl with a potato field — and pesticide spraying. Potato fields nudge up against homes, schools, day cares, old folks homes, tourist facilities, rivers and streams. Island residents can smell the pesticides in the air, taste them in their water, feel them on the clothes they hang out to dry. And see their impact in everything that is happening around them.
“Over the course of one month” Labchuk wrote in a 2012 article in an environmental magazine, “nine rivers were poisoned by agricultural pesticides. Thousands of fish were found belly-up, and frogs, snakes, worms, slugs and insects were exterminated.”
Despite that, she says, no charges were ever laid, in large part because of what she believes is the out-sized power of the potato industry and the comfortable collusion of governments. “Both Liberal and Conservative governments have encouraged industry expansion through loans, subsidies and other financial incentives. The land has been savaged by the potato industry and neither government nor industry have shown remorse.” (You won’t be surprised to learn that Labchuk opposes government subsidies to help what she sees as profitable potato farmers buy metal detectors. “Another subsidy for destructive #peipotato industry,” she tweeted in early June.)
To make matters worse, she claims, many Islanders have long felt powerless to complain. Because she was an outspoken environmentalist and, until 2012, leader of the Green Party, “people would often call me anonymously, never mentioning their names but encouraging me to keep speaking out. Some of the women felt they would be shunned in their communities if they went public. I remember one welder, who was worried about [how pesticides were affecting] his little girl, telling me he welds farm machinery for a living and couldn’t take the risk of speaking out.”
That said, Labchuk believes the mood is changing. She points in particular to this May’s provincial election. For the first time in memory, “not a single potato producer was elected, though several were running.” Better, Peter Bevan-Baker, her successor as Green Party leader, became the first ever Green elected to the P.E.I. legislature.
During his first full day in the legislature, however, Bevan-Baker quickly smacked up against the reality of just how powerful the potato industry still is, regardless of how many elected farmers in the House of Assembly.
The Liberal government and Tory opposition had proposed a rare joint motion condemning the acts of potato sabotage and expressing the legislature’s “support for the Island potato industry.” Though he said he supported “unconditionally,” the intent of the motion, Bevan-Baker added that “a system which continually relies on vast inputs of pesticides and fertilizers is inherently unsustainable, both economically and ecologically.” He proposed an amendment to replace “support for the Island potato industry” with “support for food safety and Island agriculture.”
As the Charlottetown Guardian reported the next day: “One by one, MLAs from both the Liberal and Progressive Conservative caucuses stood and chastised Bevan-Baker’s amendment, expressing their unwavering support for farmers and the P.E.I. agriculture industry. Even Premier Wade MacLauchlan weighed in. ‘The potato industry is not a faceless industry… in effect it is a way of life,’ he said.”
So we still don’t know who attacked Prince Edward Island’s potato way of life, or why. Based on the track record of previous food tampering cases, we may never know.
The reality is that almost no one — save perhaps the perpetrator — is happy that it’s happened. The P.E.I. potato industry has not only risen to the challenge and now boasts what Donald calls “the safest potatoes in the world,” but it also hasn’t lost market share as a result of the publicity. Still, the reality is that P.E.I. farmers — and governments — have invested millions, not to improve the quality of what they produce but simply to protect their crops from a saboteur, or saboteurs, who might never be caught, and who might never strike again.
You might think the coffee shop tagging of a nameless, faceless environmentalist as the prime suspect would at least have helped to raise consciousness about the pesticide issue nearest and dearest to Labchuk’s heart. It hasn’t. “People,” Labchuk admits, “are less interested in the broader environmental issues and much more curious about who did it, and how he or she or they managed to keep it quiet in a place like Prince Edward Island.”
And so the world turns, circa 2015.