Inside the mind of a strawberry saboteur
WHY anybody would feel the impulse to take a sharp needle, insert it into a strawberry and leave it for an unsuspecting victim is a question that's puzzled me in recent days.
How could somebody, knowing the potential consequences, go through with it? There's no immediate reward. No satisfaction from watching the shock on a person's face when they discover their fruit has been sabotaged.
And what might their motivation be? Are they a disgruntled worker let go because the industry is cutting back on staff? Or just a creative individual with too much time on their hands and nothing better to do?
Whatever the reason for it, it's impact on Australia has been far-reaching.
The industry - already on its knees - is struggling under the weight of trailer after trailer of wasted produce. And now copycats are making recovery efforts almost impossible.
Shoppers are avoiding strawberries that are available because of a fear - rational or otherwise - that their punnet might have been tampered with.
Just yesterday, we learned that a needle was found inside an apple being peeled by a Sydney mum for her daughter.
"This can't possibly be happening, not in apples," the Kellyville mum said.
But yes, in apples, too.
Criminologist and psychologist at Melbourne's RMIT University, Dr Michelle Noon, tried to answer the biggest questions of all. Who? And why?
'THEY'RE MOTIVATED INDIVIDUALS'
Dr Noon works with criminals in a clinical role when she's not lecturing on criminal behaviour. She's seen everything, but even she struggles with the strawberry sabotage.
She told news.com.au while it was hard to be definitive on the type of person who would choose to deliberately sabotage fruit in the first place, copycat criminals were more likely motivated by their actions making media headlines.
"There is a suggestion that copycat crime is predicted by media and community interest," Dr Noon said. "Media and community interest is likely to be driving it, but this media coverage is giving people an idea of what crime to commit - not the reason or the motive to commit crime full stop."
She said those responsible would be telling themselves they had every reason to do what they were doing.
"We call them cognitive distortions - where we come up with ideas like, you or me might want to eat Tim Tams for dinner and we'll come up with a neutralising script or reason why it's OK," Dr Noon said.
"For them, they might say, 'They made me do it, I was angry.' What sits underneath the motives is really interesting.
"They're motivated individuals who have normalised deviant and criminal scripts and behaviours for themselves. Those scripts are gained from peer interactions and explain a preparedness to commit criminal acts."
Dr Noon rejected the notion that committing a crime anonymously meant the culprit ignored the consequences.
"Maybe there's a deep understanding of consequences," she said. "When you do sit down with people who commit these acts, you're always surprised by what they tell you."
'A CHANCE THERE COULD BE SOUR GRAPES'
Few crimes have disturbed the Australian psyche like the strawberry crisis. Yes, we're worried about the physical trauma associated with biting into a strawberry embedded with a needle.
But Dr Noon says the "real offence" is the mental trauma.
"When I saw this, I thought of how the community will be deeply affected. The fear of biting into a strawberry is not rationally aligned with the seriousness of the threat.
"It's having a huge impact on our mental health and we already know that mental health is driving people to the GP at higher rates than any other health concern."
When it came to identifying the culprits who originally came up with the idea of sabotaging strawberries, Dr Noon said it was hard to pin down an individual's profile as criminality in general was "really complicated behaviour".
"Everybody's different. They could be young or old," she said. "They could be personally connected or not. They could have a history of criminal behaviour or not. It makes it hard to predict 'who dunnit'."
However, Bob Sheehy, who owns Shaylee Strawberries, suggested those responsible, at least initially, were disgruntled workers.
He said strawberry farms were closing amid one of the worst seasons in recent memory, meaning the fruit was being sold for as little as $1 a punnet in shops and many were being forced out of a job.
Speaking to The New Daily, Mr Sheehy said he would not be surprised to learn the strawberry sabotage was a case of "sour grapes".
"Some workers are paid a pittance," he said. "Some of the bigger farms have five million plants, so think of how many workers they each have."
Another Queensland-based grower told the publication he "sort of saw this coming".
"The pressure and the relationships between workers and farmers and farms and retailers are no good for anybody.
"This season we had a glut. The bigger farms are getting bigger and the smaller farms are getting smaller."
So far, nobody has been caught. NSW Police issued a statement on Tuesday warning there were "serious penalties associated with deliberate fruit contamination as investigations continue into the insertion of sewing needles into strawberries".
"So far, NSW Police Force has received more than 20 reports of contaminated strawberries, which have been seized for forensic examination," police said in the statement.
Queensland Health has launched an investigation and contaminated brands, including Berry Obsession, Berry Licious and Donnybrook have been pulled from shelves.
It has also led to calls from farmers for calm.
In a joint statement on Tuesday, Queensland strawberry growers said "sometimes hysterical media" coverage was costing growers millions of dollars.
"Fundamentally we are looking at a very small number of confirmed cases of actual tampering related to just three brands," spokeswoman Jennifer Rowling said.
"All other reported cases have either been copycats or unsubstantiated claims."