No one has come forward so far to claim the $100,000 reward for solving the mystery of who is sticking sewing needles into Prince Edward Island's potatoes – a situation that has seen the destruction of hundreds of thousands of pounds of produce and has put members of the province's $1-billion potato industry on edge.
Potato farmers have never seen this before. "It's unheard of," said one farmer, who asked that his name not be used, adding there is "some kind of evil behind it."
Last weekend, sewing needles were found stuck in potatoes processed at the Irving-owned Cavendish Farms, a plant in New Annan, near Summerside. As a result, 100,000 pounds of processed French fries and raw potatoes were destroyed. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency was notified and officials came to the plant. No recall was required.
This follows incidents of potato tampering last October, discovered at the same plant.
Again, potatoes with needles in them were found by metal detectors, as they were this week, before they left the plant. Last fall, six needles were also discovered by consumers in potatoes that had been sold in stores in Nova Scotia, Newfoundland and Labrador and New Brunswick. All of those potatoes were found to have come from Linkletter Farms in Summerside – and Linkletter ordered a voluntary recall of its products.
As police chase leads and farmers scratch their heads wondering about the culprit, there is worry, too, the island's reputation as a peaceful and trustful place is taking a hit.
"We are known for being a quiet gentle people and a quiet gentle place," says John Martin, retired hospital administrator and a board member of the Canadian Potato Museum in O'Leary, the self-proclaimed potato capital of PEI. "This seems to be such a contrast and such an affront to that notion of ourselves and what other people have of us."
The most recent tampered potatoes are not from the same farm as in October, according to a joint statement by Cavendish Farms and the RCMP. Because of the investigation, authorities will not say how many needles were found – but they have narrowed down where the potatoes came from in the most recent incident. RCMP would not identify the location.
RCMP Sgt. Leanne Butler told The Globe and Mail that they are following "some" tips from the public and are waiting for results of laboratory testing of the potatoes and needles.
PEI MP Wayne Easter said news of more tampering was bad publicity for the province – and for the potato industry. The long-time representative of Malpeque, which has much of the agricultural production and the Cavendish Farm plant, is worried that the needle planting was the result of islanders unhappy with farmers using pesticides.
"The industry is doing everything within its power … to manage their industry in a way that does protect the environment," he said. "But there are some that feel otherwise … Is there someone who doesn't like the fact that we do use modern methods of farming and use pesticides? Sometimes, there has been in the past, fish kills. That would be the key reason."
Island environmentalist Sharon Labchuk said finger-pointing at environmentalists is "so ridiculous."
"Everybody lives either adjoining a potato field or really darn close to a potato field and you see these humongous sprayers going by … " Given that, she said: "If they are looking for suspects who have a grudge against the industry, there's about 140,000 people that live on this island with varying degrees of contempt for this industry, not just environmentalists."
Still, she was contacted by the RCMP last fall and asked if she had "heard anything through the grapevine."
"No, not a word," she said she told them.
Ms. Labchuk, the former Green Party leader on PEI, is known for her strong views on the issue of pesticides and is calling for the dismantling of the potato industry on the island.
"In truth, it's hard to say what the motivation of someone would be as to stick needles in potatoes. Is it somebody who is unstable or somebody's who's got a grudge? Who knows?" she said.
As for how the needles got into the potatoes, Mr. Easter believes the most likely scenario is they were tampered with in the fields. Either someone purchased potatoes, put the needles into them and then scattered them on the fields or stabbed them while they were in the rows on the field.
"It's a sabotage of the industry," he said. "I am just hopeful the perpetrators can be found."
So does Gary Linkletter, whose farming operation was targeted. He has now installed metal detectors and has several more units on order.
"We feel that, until the culprit is apprehended, it is the only way to have confidence in our product," he wrote in an e-mail. Mr. Linkletter, who just ended a four-year term as chairman of the Prince Edward Island Potato Board, said his company's main concern has been for the "safety of our customers …"
There has been no impact on business, said Greg Donald, general manager of the potato board, adding that safety protocols in place have helped.
The Potato Museum's John Martin, meanwhile, can understand an act of God – a storm, frigid cold or a heat spell – tampering with the potato crop, but not a fellow islander or islanders.
"It rattles you to the bones, really," he said.