Australia's strawberry industry comes to a standstill after several cases of needles found in fruits
A man in Western Australia and a girl in South Australia reportedly found needles in their strawberries in the past two days, according to police.
The Australian government has ordered a review into the handling of strawberries after sewing needles turned up insde them in supermarkets across the country, with Queensland state offering a reward of roughly $72,000 for information leading to the arrest of anyone responsible.
Law enforcement in Queensland is still trying to determine if a single person is behind the sabotage wrecking Australia's strawberry industry or if it is being perpetrated by several independent actors.
Metal needles were found in strawberries across Queensland, Tasmania, and Western Australia as the crisis continues to spread, The Guardian reports.
Greg Hunt, Australia's health minister, ordered an investigation into the scare by the Food Safety Authority of Australia and New Zealand.
"This is a very vicious crime and it's a general attack on the public," he said.
The investigation was further complicated by the wide network of supply chains where the strawberries are produced and where they are ultimately shipped to, according to Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart.
“There is a range of really complex scenarios which could play out here, and we’re looking at all of them, and that’s what’s taking the time,” he said on Monday.
According to reports, one man had to be rushed to a hospital after consuming a strawberry with a needle inside. In a shocking apparent copycat maneuver in central Queensland, investigative officers caught a 62-year-old woman putting a needle into a banana at a shop in Mackay. It was later found that the woman has mental health issues.
Authorities said they were treating the incident as an isolated one without links to other food contamination probes.
In an attempt to weed out the criminals, the Queensland state government has offered a $72,000 reward for information, BBC reports.
The Queensland Strawberry Growers' Association said on Thursday that the needles may have been placed by a "disgruntled employee", but it is too early to speculate.
BREAKING: @QldPolice say there was a suspected copy cat incident regarding strawberry needle contamination. Metal rod was found in a punnet at a Queensland Coles @9NewsQueensland pic.twitter.com/kJuEyrRCr7— Sam Cucchiara (@SamCucchiara9) September 13, 2018
On Saturday, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said, "How could any right-minded person want to put a baby or a child or anybody's health at risk by doing such a dreadful act?"
Adrian Schultz, the Vice president of the Queensland Strawberry Growers Association, said that just one “act of commercial terrorism” has caused jobs beyond the growers to be lost and brought a multi-million-dollar industry to a standstill.
Speaking to ABC radio on Monday, Schultz said, “I’m angry for all the associated people, it’s the farmers, the people who supply them, the packaging people, the truckies with families to support, who suddenly lose their jobs ... it’s far-reaching."
Mark Furner, the agriculture minister of Queensland, spoke to nervous strawberry producers about the future of the industry as the number of needle contamination cases reached 10 and two of the largest food distributors in New Zealand - Countdown and Foodstuffs - removed Australian strawberries from their store shelves.
On Sunday, growers were discussing the commercial effects of the contamination that began eight days ago at a southeast Queensland farm when they met with Furner.
A woman has been quizzed by police after a banana was found in a supermarket with a needle hidden inside. And countries including New Zealand have begun knocking back Australian strawberries as the sabotage crisis spreads. #7News pic.twitter.com/nKp8JtXUWG— 7 News Melbourne (@7NewsMelbourne) September 17, 2018
Until an analysis of the "complete effect" of the sabotage is conducted, no mitigation plan will be made. However, industry-specific assistance packages are being considered for damage control, Furner said.
“We won’t be coming up with any half-baked outcomes ... we need to listen to what is required,” he said.
Over 150 commercial strawberry growers in Queensland would be receiving a variety of generic government assistance packages that are available, he said.
Due to an oversupply of fruit, quite a few producers were already experiencing economic ramifications before the contamination. This, in turn, caused retail prices for a punnet to fall to around $1.50 per, Furner added.
The sabotage has severely affected the sales of at least six major brands, namely Berry Obsession, Berry Licious, Love Berry, Donnybrook Berries, Delightful Strawberries, and Oasis.
Having said that, Australian health officials have advised the public to cut up strawberries before consumption.