News National Strawberry contamination sparks federal investigation

Strawberry contamination sparks federal investigation

strawberry sabotage
The strawberry scare has taken its toll on growers. Photo: ABC
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Hours after Health Minister Greg Hunt ordered a federal investigation, the strawberries scare has reached Western Australia.

A man reported to York police station on Monday after finding a needle inside a punnet of strawberries.

He reportedly found the needle in his sink after preparing the WA-grown-and-packaged strawberries for his family.

The latest report adds to a second case of contamination in Adelaide and Tasmanian police investigating an incident reported in Hobart on Sunday.

AAP also reports that vice president of the Queensland Strawberry Growers Association, Adrian Schultz, says what started with a single “act of commercial terrorism” has now brought a multi-million-dollar industry of 150 Queensland growers to its knees, with jobs beyond the growers now likely to be lost.

“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 told ABC radio on Monday.

The contamination began at a south-east Queensland farm eight days ago. At least seven brands of strawberries are caught up in the scandal including: Donnybrook Berries, Love Berry, Delightful Strawberries, Oasis brands, Berry Obsession, Berry Licious and Mal’s Black Label strawberries.

Tasmanian police are investigating after reports on social media of a needle being found in a punnet of strawberries bought at a Hobart supermarket at Rosny Park.

The Hobart customer returned the packet of strawberries on Sunday and police said the product is being examined.

Police are yet to confirm whether or not they are linked to instances of contamination in Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, or perhaps a copycat incident.

Strawberries have been pulled from many supermarket shelves. Photo: ABC

Mal’s Black Label strawberries are grown and packed in Gingin, 70 kilometres north of Perth, but a company spokesman said he believed there was no way the needle could have got into the punnet at the WA farm.

Western Australia’s Health Department said there had been no reports of strawberries contaminated with needles in WA.

In Victoria, supermarket chain IGA announced it will be pulling all strawberries from all IGA stores after claims a needle was found in some berries at a store in Mildura.

Police in Melbourne confirmed they are investigating the Mildura case along with others from Deer Park, Preston and Seymour.

Minister orders investigation

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has ordered Food Safety Australia New Zealand (FSANZA) to immediately investigate the contamination.

“This a vicious crime. It’s designed to injure and possibly worse, members of the population at large,” Mr Hunt said.

“It’s also an attack on the agriculture sector – the strawberry sector in particular.

“The police have primary responsibly at state level and they are doing a magnificent job – I commend them.

“But we have also tasked the federal agency to investigate whether there are supply chain weaknesses, whether there are actions that we can take to assist the police, whether there are systemic changes which are required.

But at the end of the day, the job is very very clear – protect the public and keep them safe.”

The investigation comes as the scandal spreads to New Zealand with supermarket co-operative Foodstuff halting the distribution of Australian strawberries.

Foodstuffs said it was confident that no product in its stores has been affected, but said for added reassurance it decided to halt the sale.

Can the industry bounce back?

Managing director of 1UP Communications, Demetri Hughes, said the scandal may affect the strawberry industry for some time and it would likely not bounce back this calendar year.

“Food tampering is really scary to a consumer because it’s a risk to their physical safety and it’s one of those things that they’ve got less control over,” Mr Hughes said.

“It’s essential that these growers of strawberries advise consumers of their good deeds, their history and all their safeguards they have in place.

“If they remind people of these positive deeds, thank the stakeholders that have been involved in this process, then it is an industry that can bounce back by the next season.

“That is on the basis that they have put safeguards in place and that they haven’t deliberately held out any information that people should have been aware of.”

needles found in strawberries in Sydney
The find has prompted Coles to withdraw all brands of Queensland-grown strawberries.

Food tampering scandals have rocked Australian brands before, like Herron, Top Taste and Sizzler.

In 2006, Brisbane-based food company Top Taste shut down operations after foreign objects, including a sewing needle and a razor blade, were found in cakes in Queensland, Victoria and Tasmania.

More than four million cakes were destroyed in a nationwide recall.

Also in 2006, restaurant chain Sizzler closed all self-serve salad bars in Australia after rat pellets were found at two eateries in Brisbane.

Sizzler outlets in Toowong and the Myer Centre were contaminated with green pellets and a woman was charged over the incident.

In 2000, a number of people were taken to hospital with strychnine poisoning after consuming contaminated Herron paracetamol capsules.

The alleged extortion attempt forced the company to withdraw its products from shops.

“In the case of Sizzler, they’ve barely survived. They’ve nearly collapsed. There’s a few stores only now … they cease to be the iconic brand they used to be,” Mr Hughes said.

“With George Weston foods and their [Top Taste] cakes, there was a recall of a few million cakes and it took five months to do that.

“The difference here with the strawberry farmers and the supermarkets is they immediately notified the consumers.”

Police are urging anyone who finds contaminated strawberries to contact them, while health authorities are recommending strawberries of all brands be cut up before eating.