Zespri bungle 'could cost industry dearly'
New Zealand's kiwifruit industry could be hugely and expensively damaged by a contamination scare, one marketing expert says.
Kiwifruit marketer Zespri was forced to put 1.7 million trays of fruit on hold while it looked into whether some of it had been contaminated by mechanical lubricant.
As it scrambles to replace a type of packaging which may have caused the contamination, it warned there could be delays to customer deliveries in the coming months.
"Zespri is ensuring no product in potentially affected packaging reaches the marketplace and has suspended the supply and use of pocket packs from the single affected manufacturing plant," the company said.
"This decision was made in line with Zespri's long-standing commitment to provide customers with healthy and safe-to-eat kiwifruit."
Ben Wooliscroft, in associate professor at Otago University's marketing department, said Zespri had avoided the brand damage that would have happened with a recall.
But he said there was still a major risk that if New Zealand was not able to supply kiwifruit into the markets it would normally service, a competing supplier would take its place. "Our long-term relationship disappears or a competitor is an established because we've dropped the ball."
The potential cost would run to many times what the contaminated fruit itself was worth, he said.
He said New Zealand kiwifruit was seen as a premium product around the world. "But if consumers go without it for a long time they will start buying Chilean or Chinese kiwifruit and suddenly we've lost that connection to the premium brand. There is a real risk around that, the fact it is being held back."
Wooliscroft said if the fruit had to be destroyed it would be a low to the supply chain and the kiwifruit farmers.
To regain Zespri's market position it would have to invest in promoting the product again and potentially compete on price with other brands, he said. "It's a bad situation to be in. I'm sure they'll be working around the clock at kiwifruit headquarters."
But Valentyna Melnyk, of Massey University, said it was the right move would not hurt New Zealand kiwifruit's international reputation.
"If anything, it should enhance Zespri's reputation. They would be perceived as a more trustworthy bad that doesn't take any risks. If they explain it in those terms, they don't want to take any risks, that will be seen as a positive thing,"
She said it was a relatively small concern in the scheme of potential food contamination. "It's not even salmonella or anything, it's something small and we don't eat the kiwifruit skin anyway. IF they want to be on the safe side it shows respect for customer, they should be trusted more rather than less. It's a huge financial cost for them as well."
Zespri said it had no further update on the situation yet.