Australia searches for culprit hiding sewing needles in strawberries

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2018/09/15/australia-searches-cul
Fresh ripe strawberries in boxes for sale at a market. (iStock)
Fresh ripe strawberries in boxes for sale at a market. (iStock) By Siobhán O'Grady Siobhán O'Grady WorldViews reporter Email Bio Follow September 17

It’s a crime so strange that any motive seems nearly inconceivable: In Australia, someone is placing sewing needles inside strawberries — endangering those who eat them and sending panic across strawberry markets as prices plummet and government officials scramble to find a culprit.

In recent days, a number of people in Australia have opened boxes of strawberries they purchased at supermarkets, only to find that the fruit has small sewing needles or pins stuck inside. At least one person claims to have inadvertently swallowed one.

Some Australians have posted photos on social media showing needles they found in their berries. This weekend, the Australian newspaper reported that there have been at least seven reported cases in three Australian states, raising concerns that copycats are working separately to contaminate the berries. And the incidents then seemed to have spread, with police saying brands have been recalled across the country.

On Monday, a woman was allegedly caught poking a banana with a needle in a supermarket in Queensland. It’s not yet clear if that is related to other incidents of fruit tampering.

The strawberry industry in the state of Queensland is worth around $93 million annually, and the government there announced this week that it would offer a reward of roughly $70,000 for anyone with information about the culprit behind the strange attack on strawberries.

"Someone is trying to sabotage the industry but also in doing that, they are putting babies' and children’s and families' lives at risk,” Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said at a news conference last week. “It is simply unacceptable. I am furious about this.”

Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported that as consumers have shied away from purchasing the fruit over fears it will be contaminated with needles, farmers have ended up throwing out mass quantities of the strawberries they can’t sell. The broadcaster also said wholesale prices have dropped by around half.

Neil Handasyde, president of Strawberry Growers Association of Western Australia, told the Australian broadcaster that the industry is convinced the needles “are not coming from the farm.”

But he said “there’s been metal detectors purchased and tamper-proof packaging looked at.”

Jamie Michael, head of the Western Australian Strawberry Growers Association, told the Australian broadcaster that the needle incidents have come at peak strawberry-selling season, disrupting the market at a particularly inconvenient time.

“With strawberries you need to continue picking them,” he told ABC. “If you stop picking them for a few days then they stop producing fruit, so we’re trying to weather out this storm and hope that things get better, but to do that it’s costing.”

On Friday, Australian police said in a statement that six brands could now be affected, though government officials on Saturday told reporters that only three brands have been recalled. A number of grocers have removed the berries from their shelves.

In a statement last week, the Queensland Strawberry Growers Association said it had “reason to suspect” that a disgruntled former employee was responsible for placing needles in the strawberries.

But on Saturday, Queensland Acting Chief Superintendent Terry Lawrence told reporters that suspicion is “something we don’t subscribe to.”

“We are looking at points of the chain from growth all the way to distribution into the stores, we’re keeping a very open mind,” he said.

Palaszczuk, the Queensland premier, told reporters that “those responsible could face up to 10 years' jail, if not more, for the crimes they are committing.”

“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?” she asked.

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