Australia strawberry needle scare: Apple and banana fuel 'copycat' fears

Image source, EPA
Image caption,
Several strawberry brands have been withdrawn from sale

Australian police say sewing needles have been found hidden in an apple and a banana, amid a nationwide scare that has tormented the strawberry industry.

Since last week, Australians in every state have reported finding needles concealed in strawberry punnets.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has called it a "vicious crime" and ordered the nation's food watchdog to assist in resolving the scare.

Police said the apple and banana cases, both in Sydney, were "isolated".

But they added to more than 20 scares involving strawberries in New South Wales (NSW) alone, Supt Daniel Doherty said.

The first cases emerged in Queensland. In that state, authorities say they are investigating whether the sabotage is due to one person, or several people operating independently.

In the most serious case, a man was taken to hospital last week after eating a strawberry that contained a needle.

Police have stepped up warnings about copycat incidents, saying perpetrators - and those who make false reports - face up to 10 years in jail.

'Evil' tampering

The scare has spread to Victoria, the Australian Capital Territory, South Australia, Tasmania and Western Australia.

Several strawberry brands have been withdrawn, while New Zealand's biggest grocers have stopped selling Australian strawberries as a precaution.

Health officials have advised Australians to cut up strawberries before eating them.

Image source, JOSHUA GANE
Image caption,
Six of eight states and territories have been affected

"This is a very vicious crime and it's a general attack on the public," Mr Hunt said at the weekend.

Queensland police say complicated supply chains in the strawberry industry have made for a slow investigation.

Two states have offered A$100,000 (£55,000; $72,000) rewards for information.

In Western Australia, Premier Mark McGowan said the people who tampered with fruit were "evil" and risked others' lives.

Hit to industry

Strawberry prices have already dropped around the country, with prices in Western Australia now below the cost of production, local media reported.

The scare - which comes during the peak of production - has affected thousands of workers in an industry worth about A$130m a year, the federal government said.

Queensland has announced a A$1m assistance package for farmers in the state.

One manager of berry farms, Gavin Scurr, asked the public to continue buying strawberries.

"There's a handful of cases in 100 million punnets but it's really brought our industry to its knees," Mr Scurr, from Piñata Farms, told radio station 3AW.

Strawberry producers had begun ordering metal detectors as a safety precaution, said Strawberry Growers Association of Western Australia president Neil Handasyde.