The scare about sewing needles in strawberries first identified in Australia has spread to New Zealand.
Officials with Countdown, a supermarket in New Zealand, said needles were found in a punnet of strawberries from Western Australia, which was bought in one of its supermarkets in Auckland. The Choice brand of strawberries was sold nationwide last week. There have been no reports of illness or injury.
The supermarket, which is owned by Woolworths, withdrew Choice strawberries from sale at Countdown, SuperValue and FreshChoice supermarkets while it investigates with suppliers. Affected strawberries had not previously been implicated or withdrawn in Australia.
Countdown advised customers to cut up any Australian strawberries before eating them and said the issue does not affect any from New Zealand. The supermarket also stopped importing Australian strawberries.
Tougher penalties to deal with acts of food contamination were approved this past week by the Australian Parliament.
Attorney-General Christian Porter said the move sends a strong signal to those who put the safety of individuals and livelihoods of farmers at risk that their actions will be dealt with severely.
“Of particular concern has been the rapid escalation in copy-cat offences and hoaxes. This behavior is not a joke. It is not funny. It is a serious criminal offence which the Morrison Government, and now the whole Australian Parliament has denounced. As a consequence of this bill offenders will face serious consequences,” he said.
Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, described tampering with strawberries as a “shocking and cowardly thing to do”.
The government announced AU $1 million (U. S. $730,000) to make more food safety officials available to increase detection, fast track recalls and assist the strawberry industry to rebuild confidence.
The maximum penalty for contaminating, threatening to and making false statements about contamination of goods has been increased from 10 to 15 years.
The Queensland Government and Government of Western Australia have both offered an AU$100,000 (US$73,000) reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible.
The New South Wales Police Force warned there are serious penalties associated with deliberate fruit contamination.
An investigation, led by Queensland Health, was launched on Sept. 12 to investigate reports of contaminated strawberries from the Australian state.
Contamination affects three brands of strawberries – Berry Obsession, Berry Licious and Donnybrook – which were sold across Australia and have since been recalled or withdrawn from sale. Oasis, Delightful Strawberries and Love Berry brands, initially suspected to be included, are not implicated and have not been withdrawn from the market.
NSW Police Force has received more than 20 reports of contaminated strawberries, which have been seized for forensic examination.
Other reports of potential contamination impacting different strawberry brands have been received, consumers are advised they are safe to eat but the fruit should be cut before consuming.
Police have also received reports of contamination of other types of fruit, including a banana and an apple, which are being treated as isolated incidents.
Queensland Police Service deputy commissioner Steve Gollschewski said the investigation is focused on credible contaminations to the three brands but inquiries continue into other potential reports.
“All reports of contaminations are being fully investigated. I want to be really clear – we will take action against anybody providing false claims or pranking, including children. I’m urging all parents to talk to their children about the severity of making false claims, or sticking needles in fruit as a hoax – you’re messing with the industry’s livelihood and wasting police resources. It’s ridiculous – stop playing games with people’s lives.”
Gollschewski added anyone found deliberately contaminating food could go to prison and penalties could be greater if criminal acts cause injuries of a serious and or permanent nature.
Dr. Jeanette Young, Queensland’s chief health officer, said advice is to continue eating strawberries but they should be cut up before eating.
“We are working closely with our local and interstate counterparts as the investigation continues and are committed to keeping the public informed as this progresses.”
Department of Agriculture and Fisheries acting deputy director-general Bernadette Ditchfield said industry needs the support of government and the community.
“We’re working with industry to provide as much support as possible including financial assistance, and workplace and wellbeing programs to help growers through this difficult time. They are a big part of the agriculture industry in Queensland, with up to 60 million punnets of strawberries produced from Queensland farms each season,” she said.
(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)