Kelowna man launches hunger strike over U.S. apples

An employee of the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative is on a hunger strike after being suspended for going to the media with concerns over importing and selling U.S. apples.
Jeff Bryde, right, and supporter Maurice Martin picket in Kelowna on Wednesday. (Brady Strachan/CBC)

A Kelowna man says he's putting his job on the line over local apples.

Jeff Bryde, a forklift driver for the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative, says he's been suspended without pay for writing letters to a local newspaper criticizing B.C. Tree Fruits for importing and selling U.S. apples. 

B.C. Tree Fruit is the sales and marketing agency for the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative, a group of 800 family farms in the Okanagan.

"I work at the Vaughn Avenue plant and they were bringing in Washington State Galas, when our Galas were being picked for a week and a half," Bryde said.

"The thing that got me was that they were bringing in Washington State Galas instead of our fruit and selling them."

After being suspended from work Monday, Bryde started picketing outside the B.C. Tree Fruit Office in Kelowna, and began a hunger strike.

He said he was told he would lose his job if he spoke to the media again.

"I'm concerned, but when you think of the principle part of it, in our industry ... I have nothing to lose right now," Bryde said.

"I'm standing up for my right for freedom of speech, you might say."

B.C. Tree Fruits defends selling U.S. apples

Jim Elliot, chair of B.C. Tree Fruits and the Okanagan Tree Fruit Cooperative, said he can't comment on employer-employee matters, but does admit B.C. Tree Fruit imports and sells Washington apples on occasion.

He said it's done, as needed, to fill gaps in the market when local fruit isn't available.

"To put it in context, we sell approximately $100 million in tree fruits and other produce throughout the year, and we source about $2 million worth of imported product through the year, that we are able to supply — on occasion — to our customers."

Elliot said the company sells the U.S. fruit as a service to customers and do not represent it as locally-grown.

"There have been cases in the past where people have imported fruit and sold it under their brand and the consumer has been misled and felt that it was local product," Elliot said.

"We are not doing that. We have no intention of doing that, we've never done that. This is just a very small part of our business."

B.C.'s apple industry has struggled in recent years due to a strong dollar and pressure from retailers for better produce at lower prices.