Turning Strawberry Crisis into Opportunity

Oregon strawberries with E.Coli poisoned more than a dozen people, prompting the need for a thoughtful, authentic response from Oregon strawberry farmers."Strawberries are the angels of the earth, innocent and sweet with green leafy wings reaching heavenward." Unfortunately, Oregon strawberries from a farm in Washington County appear to be the angels of death for an elderly woman and sickness for as many as 15 other consumers, two of whom remain hospitalized, according to state health experts.

Tests confirm strawberries from the farm contained the E.Coli 0157.H7 bacteria. Experts link the E.Coli contamination to deer feces.

News of the E.Coli outbreak has put an understandable damper on consumer enthusiasm to buy those red, sweet delights of summer — and maybe a long-term dent on the reputation of the Oregon strawberry industry.

For their final exam, I asked my Willamette University MBA students to develop recommendations to address the immediate and longer term ramifications of this crisis. They offered some creative and useful ideas:

Work with grocers and farmers market vendors for point-of-sale demonstrations showing consumers how to wash strawberries properly before eating them. Create an eye-catching poster to draw consumer attention to the demonstrations.

Post an Oregon strawberry website devoted to safe consumption of the berries. Include videos showing the food safety steps taken by responsible strawberry growers, as well as practical steps consumers should follow to wash berries at home before serving them. Describe how thorough cooking of strawberries to make jams and jellies can kill the E.Coli bacteria.

Identify some Oregon "celebrities" who eat strawberries and ask them to put positive posts on their Facebook pages and tweets on their Twitter feeds. Ask one or two of them to write an op-ed for local newspapers about the nutritional benefits of Oregon strawberries, as well as their iconic place in the state's history.

Strengthen existing food safety procedures that responsible strawberry farmers voluntarily follow, earning a recognizable food safety certificate that can be posted where berries are sold.

Coordinate with local communities where strawberries are grown commercially, such as Lebanon, which held its annual Strawberry Festival in June, to host special events this fall that emphasize the long tradition of Oregon strawberries, their succulent qualities and their varied uses – fresh and frozen.

Design an Oregon strawberry loyalty program, which might include branded apparel that reads, "I love my Oregon strawberries."

Some good food for thought, Oregon Strawberry Commission. Your industry's future depends on a thoughtful and authentic response.