Months after distressing reports emerged of someone inserting metal needles in Prince Edward Island's famous potatoes, the industry has raised the stakes, offering a $500,000 reward to help catch the culprit.
With the potato tamperer still at large, Islanders are spinning theories about the motive.
The case came to public attention last October, after workers at Cavendish Farms in New Annan, PEI, found needles in potatoes they were processing. The potatoes were traced to the neighbouring Linkletter Farms in Summerside.
Those potatoes never made it to grocery stores, but consumers in four Canadian provinces found more needles in the following months, prompting immediate recalls of potatoes from two companies. The most recent documented case, in neighbouring Nova Scotia, came in May of this year, though the exact origin of the potatoes was not released. In all, there were about a dozen cases of tampered potatoes found throughout Atlantic Canada in May.
The PEI Potato Board responded initially by offering a $50,000 reward for information leading to the conviction of the perpetrator. They raised the sum to $100,000 shortly after, and again to $500,000 on Monday.
The increased reward will be available until August 15, upon which the board will drop it back to $100,000. The industry is also making efforts to beef up security, using $1.5 million of federal funding to purchase metal detectors.
Prince Edward Island's potato industry, the largest in Canada, adds over $1 billion per year to the economy of Canada's smallest province. Potatoes are the largest cash crop on the island.
Sgt. Leanne Butler, media spokesperson for the island's RCMP division, told VICE that the police have assigned a dedicated team to the case. They're hoping that the increased reward will encourage more people to come forward with information.
"We received tips from the public when it was $100,000," she said. "We're hoping now that we will get even more."
She said the tips have ranged from trivial to substantive, but stressed that any information, no matter how seemingly unimportant, could help them make a break in the case.
Butler said that the police are keeping an open mind about what might have prompted the tampering, and won't say whether they've ruled out any theories. Those who live on the island are throwing around rumours of their own. Is it a disgruntled employee? Teenagers playing a sick joke?
Potato fields are unguarded, and anyone could sneak in and dig up potatoes to tamper with. PEI is the same place where locals pride themselves on selling potatoes on the side of the road in unmanned veggie stands, leaving a bucket of cash for passers-by to make their own change, so the idea of guarding thousands of acres of fields is a non-starter culturally, let alone logistically.
Susan Harvey, the owner of Harvey's General Store in Crapaud, PEI, suspects that it's someone trying to "hurt the potato farmers."
One report even suggested that many suspect a dispute between Big Potato and local environmentalists over irrigation might be at the root of the crimes.
There are circumstantial links between two of the main targets of the tampering and the irrigation issue. The president of Cavendish Farms appeared before a committee last year to press for the right to dig deep water wells, while environmentalists have supported retaining an existing moratorium. Gary Linkletter of Linkletter Farms also called on the province the reexamine the moratorium, according the National Post.
The former president of the PEI organic co-op, Alexander MacKay, told VICE that two RCMP officers visited him this spring to ask if he knew who might have been involved. Even though he doesn't think the environmentalist theory is credible, he understands that the police are just doing their jobs.
"They're not getting any hints," he said. "Maybe someone mentioned something to me. We're a small island."
Harvey, the general store owner, says that some people on the Island are scared to buy potatoes, but that it hasn't hurt her business. People know that her store gets its potatoes from a small farmer who hasn't been touched by the case.
"We get potatoes here twice a week and we can't keep them in the store," she told VICE, adding her spuds come from a farm just down the road.
Bernice, an employee at Jay's General Store in Morell, PEI, says that she won't hold off eating local potatoes just because of the needle scare.
"We mostly always peel our potatoes and mash them," she said. "So if they're gonna be in it you'll see it."
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