Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Black-balled peas

If Talleys of New Zealand have been correctly reported, it seems to me that they have placed the wrong priority on their response to the complaint by Humphrey Elton about his finding Black Nightshade berries in a pack of frozen peas last August. A number of other contaminated packs of peas and beans have turned up since then, the latest being frozen peas and corn last week. One complainant has claimed that almost half of the peas were actually Black Nightshade. If that really is the case, then there is a serious problem in the factory or on the farms.

According to Mr. Elton, Talleys informed him that this is a common agricultural weed and nothing to worry about. He received a cheque for five dollars as compensation.

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority has noted that the berries are “mildly toxic and should be avoided; the contamination is a food quality issue”. It seems that it has been an issue for at least 8 months, but for some reason has only recently hit the headlines.

The fact is, Mr Elton and other consumers bought frozen vegetables. They did not expect to receive anything else in the pack. Being told that the berries are nothing to worry about is akin to complaining to the waiter about a fly in the soup and then being told not to let other diners hear - it’s extra protein and a bonus.

In a world where consumers are highly aware of food safety and quality, I would have expected a more pro-active response from the company. They could have told the complainants that they were very sorry about the contamination and that they were investigating the occurrence and should not have offered such a miserly compensation. If the problem has been known since last year, they should have been doing something about it long ago. What a difference this would have made to the public perception of the company. The downside is that Paul Henry (TVone Breakfast host) would have been robbed of an opportunity to clown around, testing frozen peas by hitting them with a mallet on the Breakfast table.

How could the contamination have occurred? The most likely causes are excessive growth of Black Nightshade in the fields as a result of favourable weather conditions and failure to control this growth by suitable spraying. When the peas are harvested, a harvesting machine cuts the whole pea vine and separates the peas from the other parts of the plant. The harvester cannot differentiate peas from nightshade berries. Sorting and separation in the processing plant was obviously ineffective.

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