The strawberry needle sabotage was preceded by crushing financial pressures that left many farmers unable to sell this season’s oversupply of fruit, growers have revealed to The New Daily.
Since last week when needles were found in strawberries in suspected acts of sabotage there have been more than 20 reports and nine confirmed cases of contamination nationwide with police fearing copycat behaviour.
But what would motivate someone to deliberately endanger people they never met?
The context is a strawberry glut described as the “worst ever season”.
In late August, punnets of strawberries were being sold for as low as $1 in supermarkets.
It led to the closure of one strawberry farm – Twist Brothers – after almost 50 years of operation.
Strawberry growers say the impact will be much wider reaching, affecting farmers and workers throughout the supply chain.
Bob Sheehy, owner of Shaylee Strawberries, said “a lot of people will lose their jobs”.
“Some of the bigger farms have five million plants, so think of how many workers they each have,” he told The New Daily.
There could be 10,000 people out of work out of this.
“And that’s locals too, not just backpackers.”
Mr Sheehy said he would not be surprised if a disgruntled worker had planted the needle.
“There is a chance there could be sour grapes,” he said.
“Some workers are paid a pittance.”
One small Queensland-based grower admitted to The New Daily that he foresaw the industry tipping to crisis point, citing financial pressure, the harsh environment, workload and stress on workers.
“To tell you the truth, I sort of saw this coming,” he said.
“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.
“There should be less strawberries growing. Maybe less is more.”
He said that while farmers have always experienced financial pressure at various levels, there is more uncertainty in the industry now than ever before in terms of when retailers will push prices down and force farmers to settle for lower prices.
Anthony Sarks, owner of Ricardoes Tomatoes & Strawberries said the sabotage incidents could not have come at a worse time for strawberry growers.
“A farmer’s costs are ever rising,” he said.
“It was a good season weather wise. But the dominance of the supermarkets also means they can reject anything they don’t like. For example, small strawberries.
“Selling punnets for $1.50 – a farmer can’t possibly survive on that.”
Mr Sarks said that if prices continue to be forced down, farmers will be forced to close their businesses.
“We’re going to be forced into eating overseas produce. That’s the danger for Australian consumers,” he said.
“Don’t stop buying strawberries because the farmers will suffer the most and we need our farmers desperately.”
Strawberry association calls for calm amid crisis
The Queensland Strawberry Growers Association (QSGA) said on Tuesday that “overblown media” in the aftermath of the strawberry tampering is feeding a nationwide scare.
“Fundamentally we are looking at a very small number of cases of actual tampering related to just three brands. All other reported cases have either been copycats or unsubstantiated claims,” a spokeswoman said.
“To put this issue in context, the industry produces around 800,000 punnets per day and, apart from the original incident 10 days ago where a consumer sought medical assistance, needles have been confirmed in only a small number of punnets, resulting in instructions by Queensland Health to withdraw three brands from sale.
The crisis has not just affected local consumption, with strawberry exporters told Tuesday they must prove their fruit has been cleared through a metal detector or x-ray machine before the Department of Agriculture will issue a permit
“This issue has attracted attention as far away as Russia and the UK and, as a result, a number of our trade partners have either already blocked Australian strawberry imports or are talking about doing so,” the QSGA said.