Authorities in Australia are investigating an apparent campaign of industrial sabotage to its food industry after sewing needles were found in strawberries and at least one consumer was treated in hospital.
Contaminated punnets have been found in several states and New Zealand’s biggest supermarkets have stopped distributing the fruit from Australia.
By Monday no suspects had been identified in what Australia’s health minister has described as a “vicious crime”.
How far has the scare spread?
The first cases of strawberries with needles embedded in them were found in Queensland last week. A man was treated in hospital after reportedly biting into a strawberry and swallowing half a needle. In another case, a 9-year-old boy was lucky not to be injured, according to his mother.
More cases were then revealed in New South Wales and South Australia when police confirmed that contaminated punnets had been bought from supermarkets. Cases have also been reported in Victoria, Western Australia and the Australian Capital Territory.
On Monday authorities in Tasmania said it was likely that strawberries with needles had crossed from the mainland, although one claim was being investigated amid reports it may have been a hoax.
Several brands have been affected, while police say some cases may be “copycat” incidents.
Where are Australian strawberries sold?
The vast majority of strawberries in Australia’s AU$130m (€80m) industry are produced for the domestic market. Around 4% are sold abroad and exports reportedly rose by over a quarter between 2016 and 2017.
Australia was listed as the world’s 13th largest exporter in 2017 in terms of value. Producers want to double the volume of exports and have targeted high-income countries in Europe, North America and northern Asia.
Growers have said they fear the current scare, which has struck during the peak production season, could devastate an industry already struggling with costs and market pressure.
What action have authorities taken?
Health officials have advised people to cut strawberries up before eating them. Queensland’s chief health officer says the fruit is still “a great product to eat” but advises consumers to be extremely cautious.
The Queensland Government has offered AU$100,000 (€61,500) reward for information that leads to the arrest and conviction of the culprit.
Investigations have focused on one supplier in the south-east of the state, but police say it is too early to speculate after the Strawberry Growers Association said it suspected a disgruntled former employee was responsible.
At least one major grocer has removed from its shelves brands known to have been affected. In New Zealand two major grocers, Woolworths NZ and Foodstuffs have halted the distribution of Australian strawberries.
How secure is Australian food production?
Food manufacturing plants are said to be equipped with metal detectors, but these are mainly designed to identify pieces that may contaminate products accidentally during processing.
Some experts say the industry has not been prepared for deliberate sabotage.
Dr Kim Phan-Thien, a food science lecturer at the University of Sydney, said control systems would need to evolve to include vulnerability and threats, ABC reported.
However, she warned consumers and the industry not to over-react, saying such cases were extremely rare.
“We shouldn’t doubt the whole system,” she said. ”Fruit and vegetables are still good for us, and it’s not just a failure in the industry to deal with an issue — it’s an unusual and shocking case.”