Fruit sabotage crisis worsens
THE West Australian government has followed Queensland in offering a $100,000 reward for information on the strawberry tampering epidemic, as NSW police investigate the discovery of needles in an apple and banana.
Australia's strawberry contamination scare has now spread across six states, with WA Premier Mark McGowan describing the offenders as dropkicks who were liable to 20 years imprisonment.
"If you undertake this sort of activity you can and will be caught," he told reporters.
"Those people deserve to go to jail."
It comes after a Sydney mum was horrified to find a needle in a Pink Lady apple today.
The woman, identified only as Carmella, said she purchased the apple in a six pack from the Woolworths store at The Ponds in Sydney's north west, Seven News reports.
Carmella, from the Sydney suburb of Kellyville Ridge, was peeling the apple for her daughter before her school day when she came across something hard that she thought was the stem.
She said she was horrified when she realised it was a needle.
"This can't possibly be happening, not in apples, I've seen the stories about strawberries and I'd been vigilant about cutting those up for the girls but to see this in an apple ..." she said.
She contacted the police immediately and they are now investigating.
The NSW Department of Health and NSW Police have advised Woolworths not to remove the apples from their shelves for now, Seven News reports.
A Woolworths spokesman told AAP: "We're looking into this".
As the fruit sabotage crisis widens to apples, the NSW Police has also ramped up its warning to copycats.
Detective Superintendent Daniel Doherty, who heads the Robbery and Serious Crime squad, told reporters a large number of incidents had been reported and - while they were all being treated as genuine - he indicated there would be no tolerance for "self-contamination".
Such offences carried a 10-year jail sentence, he said.
In addition to the sabotage of strawberries, there were now "isolated" reports of bananas and apples in the Sydney area being contaminated.
NSW Police are also investigating a complaint about a needle found inside a banana at a grocery store in Condell Park, according to Seven News.
FRUIT CONTAMINATION CASES WIDEN
It comes as the nation's strawberry contamination scare worsened with four cases of suspected sabotage now being investigated in Western Australia.
More than 20 cases of contamination have been reported across six states since the first incident last week, when Brisbane tradesman Hoani Hearne, 21, was taken to hospital after swallowing a needle in a strawberry.
Earlier today a child at a Brisbane school claimed to bite into a strawberry containing a needle but this was later disproved.
WA Police this morning confirmed they were investigating four reports of strawberry contamination.
A man in York, a town north of Perth, reported to police yesterday that he found a needle in his sink after washing strawberries.
Police are also now investigating three cases in the Perth suburbs of Kelmscott, Spearwood and Bullcreek.
The police's investigation into the contamination was further complicated when a 62-year-old woman was caught sticking a needle into a banana in a shop in Mackay, in an apparent copycat act.
The woman, who is understood to have mental health issues, was given a warning and referred to appropriate support services.
FRUIT CONTAMINATION SCARE: ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW
What is going on?
Over the past week consumers across the nation have reported finding sewing needles placed inside strawberries and other fruit. At least one person says he swallowed part of a needle after biting into a strawberry.
Which brands are affected?
The initial sabotage related to the Berry Obsession, Berry Licious and Donnybrook brands from Queensland. Other brands have been since been caught up in the contamination crisis. These are the Love Berry, Delightful and Oasis brands.
What is the advice to consumers?
Cut up strawberries before eating them or throw them out.
What are the supermarket chains doing?
Coles initially pulled all of its strawberries. It began restocking yesterday after "additional control measures" were introduced "to ensure strawberries are inspected before they are sent to supermarkets". Aldi pulled affected brands. Woolworths took out Berry Licious, Berry Obsession, Donnybrook, Oasis and Love Berry punnets. It does not stock Delightful.
Who did this?
The culprits are not known at this stage. The first theory to emerge, from Queensland strawberry growers themselves, was that the saboteur was a "disgruntled ex-employee". This was soon discounted by the Queensland Police Service, partly because the three brands initially affected don't share facilities. More recent incidents may have been perpetrated by copycats. The NSW Police Force has warned copycats that food contamination carries a jail sentence of up to 10 years.
Who is investigating?
The overall response is being led by Queensland Health. State police departments are investigating. Food Standards Australia New Zealand is assisting, as is the Australian Border Force. FSANZ is looking for supply chain weaknesses. Border Force is believed to have been involved in identifying pickers who didn't have permission to be working in Australia.
STRAWBERRY FARMERS HIT GLOBALLY
Deputy Nationals leader Bridget McKenzie, the federal minister responsible for food policy, issued a statement today to reassure consumers of Australia's strong record on food safety while also urging people to be vigilant for potential contaminants after sewing needles were found in strawberries across the nation.
It comes after New Zealand suppliers yesterday halted Australian strawberry exports to NZ supermarkets as police continue to investigate the matter.
Minister McKenzie said the contamination appeared to be "deliberate sabotage" and that she was receiving regular updates on the matter from Food Standards Australia New Zealand's chief executive Mark Booth, chief medical officer Brendan Murphy and Health Department officials.
"While these isolated incidents are being investigated I encourage people to continue to support the Australian strawberry industry, which is valued at over half a billion dollars and employs thousands of Australians," Senator McKenzie said.
"I urge people to exercise caution and cut up their fruit before consumption."
Senator McKenzie added: "Australia has a strong record on food safety. These incidents are rare and isolated in Australia's food safety history."
Her plea for consumers to back Australian growers comes as Queensland Strawberry Growers Association vice president Adrian Schultz has blamed "commercial terrorism" for bringing the industry to its knees.
"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," he said.
FARMERS USE METAL DETECTORS
A farmer in Queensland has told The Courier-Mail he will install a metal detector to check his produce while others are destroying their crops, rather than pick them, to save money.
Two contaminated punnets of Mal's Black Label strawberries have been found in separate suburbs outside Adelaide, with the latest in Morphett Vale.
The Mal's Black Label strawberries were grown in Western Australia, where a man on Monday reported to the York Police Station in regional WA that he'd found a needle in a punnet of strawberries.
Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt at the weekend ordered Food Standards Australia New Zealand to investigate whether there are supply chain weaknesses or systemic changes needed.
Coles supermarkets have pulled all strawberries from their shelves, except Western Australia, as a precaution.
Aldi supermarkets are returning non-contaminated strawberry brands to their shelves.
Berry Obsession, Berry Licious and Donnybrook Berries have recalled their strawberries nationwide.
Foodstuffs and Countdown, which are owned by Woolworths and control nearly the entire New Zealand grocery market, on Monday announced they had stopped sending out Australian strawberries to their stores.