Estonia's strawberry database helps fight crime

Estonian strawberries on sale at Balti jaam market. Photo is illustrative.
Estonian strawberries on sale at Balti jaam market. Photo is illustrative. Source: Priit Mürk/ERR

A reference database cataloging varieties of Estonian strawberries will help prevent fraud and will be able to test if fruit advertised as locally grown really did originate in Estonia.

Knowing the geographical origin of strawberries is important because it helps protect the Estonian market and supports farmers and strawberry growers. Until now it has not been possible to do so thoroughly.

The database is the culmination of a three-year project at the Center of Estonian Rural Research and Knowledge (METK) which mapped the Estonian strawberries' characteristics.

Piret van der Sman, deputy head of METK's plant health and microbiology laboratory, explained the project to Vikerradio's "Huvitaja" program.

Strawberries grown in Estonia often cost more than imported varieties because the market is small and they can be produced more cheaply in bigger countries. However, Estonians still often prefer to buy domestic produce, despite higher prices.

Sellers sometimes try and pass off foreign-grown fruit as domestic strawberries, charging higher prices. There have been several cases of Polish strawberries mislabeled as Estonian, for example.

Greek and Polish strawberries sold at markets in Tallinn in 2022. Photo is illustrative. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

But even if there are rumors of fraudulent activity, it cannot be confirmed until there is hard evidence. This is where the database will come in handy.

The berries' place of origin can be determined by their unique isotopes which differ from location to location.

Isotopes can show the exact region the strawberries were grown in as the composition of the soil differs in each country and this is reflected in the fruit. This makes it easy to distinguish areas such as Southern Europe and Northern Europe, for example.

Estonia's database is not unique and there are several across Europe, including in Finland and Sweden, which makes it easy to determine strawberries' origins.

The project has also made it easier to see the uniqueness of fruit grown in Estonia and see the differences between neighboring countries and those further away.

Until now, it has not been totally possible to determine the origins of Estonian-grown strawberries, and, when suspicious of crimes arise, the Agriculture and Food Board requests a paper trail of evidence. Now it will be possible by analyzing physical samples of the suspicious strawberries.

A woman buying fruit at a market. Photo is illustrative. Source: Siim Lõvi/ERR

The database will need to be updated as many factors can change soil composition, including the weather and fertilizers.

The database is ready to use immediately by those interested but it is likely the Agriculture and Food Board will be the main users. Anyone who doubts the origins of strawberries can contact the agency.

The analysis will be carried out by METK's partner laboratory in Germany, Agroisolab GmbH which has significantly more experience in the field and better reference databases.

In other countries, isotope testing has been used as evidence in criminal proceedings, van der Sman said.

This is the first time such a system has been created in Estonia, but it is widely used across Europe for other crops, such as olives and grapes. There are now hopes to expand the method in Estonia.

The project "Creating a reference database of strawberries of Estonian origin" was led by Liina Kruus, head of the grain and fodder laboratory of METK.


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Editor: Helen Wright

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