Woolworths could face hundreds of thousands of dollars in compensation costs because of the sewing needles found in strawberries it was selling – even though the incident is potentially sabotage, and outside the supermarket chain’s control.
Woolworths recalled strawberries from its shops in NSW, Victoria and Queensland this week after several punnets were found to be contaminated with sewing needles.
Police and health authorities continue to advise consumers to slice the berries before eating them.
“It’s quite safe to buy them, but just cut them up and check there isn’t anything in there that shouldn’t be,” Queensland chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young told the ABC.
Mark O’Connor, a personal injury law specialist from Bennett & Philp Lawyers in Brisbane, said Woolworths might be liable for compensation claims made by injured customers, because it had sold the strawberries.
“If you buy a product, you expect to get what you paid for – that it’s of good quality and safe for consumption. When it’s not, it’s a breach of contract with the customer,” he said.
“You can seek compensation for the pain and suffering, any medical costs associated with treatment and lost wages.”
Mr O’Connor said such claims could run into “hundreds of thousands of dollars”.
The contamination came to light on Wednesday, when authorities were notified of reports that sewing needles had been hidden in at least three punnets of strawberries supplied to Woolworths from a south-east Queensland farm.
Police launched an investigation after a Queensland man reported swallowing a contaminated berry.
“I found a needle, bit into it by accident and it snapped in half – or what felt like it snapped in half – and my knee-jerk reaction was to swallow,” he told Channel Seven.
“I found the other half of the needle in the strawberry. I was in complete shock.”
Two people in Victoria have since reported similar experiences.
A fourth punnet of affected strawberries was discovered in Gladstone on Thursday after a boy bit into a contaminated berry that was in his school lunch box.
The Warmuran farm that supplied the berries – under the brand names Berry Obsession and Berry Licious – was inspected by Queensland police and Australian Border Force officers on Thursday.
Another investigation is also underway after a Coles employee found a small metal rod on top of berries for sale in a supermarket in Gatton, in south-eastern Queensland.
The Queensland Strawberry Growers’ Association has said a disgruntled farm worker might be behind the needle scare. But police have cast doubt on that theory.
Anyone who finds a needle inside a strawberry has been advised to contact the police.