Sales of fresh strawberries in supermarkets are suffering from a food-poisoning incident that has been linked to frozen strawberries, retail produce executives told SN.
The strawberries reported as contaminated with the hepatitis-A virus were originally grown in Mexico, and processed and frozen in the United States.
However, members of the retail produce community said sales of fresh berries either had plummeted or were expected to plummet in the wake of publicity over disease outbreaks tied to frozen products distributed through the federal school- lunch system. Ironically, the sales of frozen strawberries haven't been affected (see story on Page 35).
The effect on fresh produce seemed the most acute in California, where at least two retailers declared they would stop buying strawberries from Mexico.
The frozen strawberries linked to the outbreaks were processed almost a year ago by Andrew & Williamson Sales, San Diego, and were shipped for bulk distribution to several states. The majority of the product is believed to have been sent into the federal school- lunch program. The contamination came to light when more than 160 schoolchildren in Michigan came down with the virus about two weeks ago.
There have been no reports of any retailers pulling fresh strawberries, domestic or Mexican, from their shelves. But levels of concern among consumers about the safety of strawberries were high enough to cause Ralphs Grocery Co., Compton, Calif., to stop ordering the Mexican-grown berries for the time being, according to officials at the chain.
"We canceled all our orders from Mexican growers," said Terry O'Neil, manager of corporate communications at Ralphs. "For 1997, we will be receiving 100% of our strawberries from California growers."
O'Neil told SN that during the past four to six months, Ralphs had been stocking about 20% to 30% of its fresh strawberries from Mexican growers in Baja California. The majority of its supply has always come from domestic growers, he said.
O'Neil said the chain's decision to cease ordering Mexican strawberries was taken as a "precautionary measure," because there had been no definitive word from federal sources as to what caused the outbreaks of hepatitis A.
"It's just to assure our customers that we have the safest product," O'Neil said.
He said the chain had not seen a "significant" decrease in sales, due in part to a promotion that offered strawberries for 59 cents a basket. The chain did, however, receive a number of customer inquiries when the situation occurred.
Ralphs received its last shipment of Mexican berries several days before the outbreak, and O'Neil said he was unsure if those strawberries were still in the chain's stores.
Vons Cos., Arcadia, Calif., said it is taking similar action for similar reasons, declaring it will only buy from domestic growers.
"At the present time, Von's will be buying primarily from California growers," said Doug Hendrix, senior communications coordinator for Vons. "We just want to relieve some of the anxiety that the consumers have. We don't believe any of our product is unsafe," Hendrix said.
Hendrix said school children in the state were given vaccines, which had raised the levels of public concern and contributed to the chain's decision to put a halt on orders of Mexican berries.
Both Hendrix and O'Neil, however, said the actions of their respective chains were not indictments of Mexican-grown strawberries as responsible for the hepatitis A outbreak. The two executives said that there still remains the possibility of using Mexican growers to supply strawberries in the future.
Other retailers in California. meanwhile, told SN they were expecting to see strawberry sales plummet, or in some cases had already seen steep declines.
"My sales dropped like a rock," said Roger Schroeder, vice president of produce at Hughes Family Markets, Irwindale, Calif. "And we were on the tail end of a strawberry ad."
A spokeswoman for Lucky Stores, Buena Park, Calif., had a similar view of the situation, although she could not confirm that sales had decreased.
"There's always an effect," said Judy Decker, spokeswoman for Lucky. "But to what extent, we don't know. We're still carrying strawberries."
Beyond the California market, industry officials said, the tainted products may have been sent to schools in a number of states, including Michigan, Georgia, Tennessee, Iowa and Arizona.
The majority of retailers across the country interviewed by SN said they were sticking to their guns, keeping fresh strawberries on the shelves despite the negative publicity.
At the same time, however, many agreed that fresh strawberry sales were likely to be affected adversely because of consumer concern and lack of comprehensive information about the causes of the outbreaks.
"As far as I know, nobody has pulled strawberries," said Jim Straub, manager of produce at Albertson's Phoenix division. "We were in stores yesterday and there were displays up, and they were still there."
"Without exception, we haven't seen anyone pulling strawberries," said Gary Evey, spokesman for Spartan Stores, the Grand Rapids, Mich.-based wholesaler.
Amrish Patel, head produce buyer at the Alpharetta, Ga.-based Harry's Farmers Markets, said he saw dips in sales soon after the reports of contamination.
"Sales definitely got hurt," Patel said. "It's going to take a while to come back."
The retailers said they are working to quell any fears their shoppers may have regarding strawberries at this critical time during the strawberry season.
One retailer in the Phoenix area said she had received phone calls from several customers who wanted information about what happened. "I was trying to tell them, 'It's frozen, not fresh,' " she said.
Officials at Roundy's, Pewaukee, Wis., sent a notice to all its stores to inform store-level employees that fresh products had not been implicated.
"We have a berry ad next week," said Michael Venturella, head produce buyer at Roundy's. "Hopefully, it won't have an effect. We're taking it one step at a time, by keeping our [staff] informed, and relaying that to the consumer."
That plan of action mirrored the advice retailers were getting from trade groups such as the Produce Marketing Association, Newark, Del., and the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association, Alexandria, Va., regarding the incident and possible effects on their sales.
"It's up to retailers to get the word out to help the consumer to understand that no fresh strawberries have been implicated," said Sarah DeLea, vice president of communications at United. "We're telling retailers to keep them there on the shelf. Pulling them is what enhances consumers' fears."
Bryan Silbermann, president of the PMA, said the trade group issued a memo to its members that stressed that the incident did not involve fresh strawberries.
"It was very clear that this was an isolated incident," Silbermann said. "This was one batch of strawberries from a single company. There is absolutely no reason why anybody would [pull] strawberries."
Schroeder of Hughes said he was upset with messages in the news media and elsewhere that implied strawberries from Mexico were all bad, whether they were frozen or fresh.
Patel of Harry's said the media typically plays a big part in creating hysteria during these types of situations. As a case in point, he said, a news broadcast on a local Atlanta television station had a reporter covering the story from inside a supermarket, and the reporter was holding fresh strawberries.