Who knew something as simple & safe as picking up a punnet of strawberries to binge on later would turn into this fear inducing act of food terrorism. An entire industry was brought to its knees this September when needles were discovered in strawberries picked & packed for public consumption. It only took a week for over 100 incidents to be reported around Australia & New Zealand.
The awareness started with a Facebook post on 9 September 2018, several days prior to any official government announcement regarding contamination. A user posted a warning about strawberries purchased in Brisbane, he reported that his friend had swallowed part of a needle and was in the emergency department at hospital.
Soon after a second victim has called Woolworths but the affected strawberries were not withdrawn. It took till 12th September till the contamination was first publicly reported and in the following days, dozens of contaminated punnets of strawberries grown in Queensland and Western Australia were discovered.
By the 17 September 2018, only ‘trade recall’ of affected brands was issued rather than a ‘consumer-level food recall’. The Consumer Level Recall is the removal of unsafe food from the distribution chain and extends to food sold to consumers, therefore involves communication with consumers. Whereas the Trade Level Recall is the removal of an unsafe food from the distribution chain but does not extend to food sold to the consumer.
Professor Melissa Fitzgerald, a food safety expert at the University of Queensland, said she was "surprised" there had not been a consumer-level recall given the products had been sold to individual customers. The recall was also not mentioned on supermarket or government food safety websites where most people would go to find correct information. Following this day, numerous $100,000 AUD rewards were announced for any information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for the sabotage. Woolworths had removed affected brands only & also later removed sewing needles from sale as a temporary measure. On 23 September, needles were found in "Australian Choice" brand strawberries sold in Auckland, New Zealand. This lead the two largest food retailers in New Zealand, Woolworths NZ and Foodstuffs to announced they would be removing Australian-grown strawberries from their shelves. Many farms were affected by this deliberate sabotage leading to them ceasing growing strawberries by fear, this came during their peak of production resulting in job losses for 100 workers & damaged sales to an industry worth about $130M AUD a year. Some growers also started installing metal detectors to protect their strawberries from contamination. Many farms had to dispose of strawberries in response to the crisis, one Queensland farm burned off 500,000 strawberry plants deemed unsellable, as it was cheaper than harvesting.
Many theories were floated as to why someone in their right mind might have put needles in strawberries – “disgruntled, overworked, underpaid, frustrated”, a former packing employee was responsible for the contamination but that did not pardon their crime, it was described as an act of "commercial terrorism". A strawberry grower from Western Australia believed someone had a "vendetta" against the strawberry industry, suggesting otherwise the contamination could be a "terrorist act". Whatever the reason may be, it didn’t make it right. On 11 November 2018, My Ut Trinh, a 50-year-old farm supervisor, was arrested in Brisbane and charged with seven counts of contaminating goods, relating to one of the initial cases of contamination involving the Berry Licious brand. Ms Trinh, who was born in Vietnam but came to Australia as a refugee 20 years ago by boat, worked at the Berrylicious/Berry Obsession fruit farm north of Brisbane as a picking supervisor.
The Federal Government responded to this entire event by seeking advice on increasing the maximum penalty for food contamination from 10 years to 15 years in jail — a punishment normally reserved for people convicted of child pornography and terrorism charges. This was not a joke; food crime will never be a joke. ‘This was deliberate act of terrorism’. Queensland Police reported that by November 2018, there had been 186 reports of contamination nationally & many Copycat frauds had also come to light & not just remaining to strawberries but spreading to apples bananas & mangoes too. On 20 September 2018, New South Wales Police reported that a young boy had been arrested after admitting to hiding sewing needles in strawberries as part of what police consider to be "a prank". Some cases were believed to be hoaxes as a South Australian man was arrested on September 21 after faking a contamination, and faced court in November.
All this because someone wasn’t happy with where they worked, how much they were paid, how they were treated. But was the personal vendetta really worth risking the lives of many, destroying the reputation of a market, causing millions of dollars of losses or sending everyone into a food terrorism scare?
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About the Author
Saipriya Shahi is a proud kiwi residing in New Zealand, the land of Elves & Giants & many great sportsmen. Saipriya holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Food Science from the Auckland University of Technology. With a goal to change the future of food with her innovative yet quality product ideas, while being obsessed with photography on the side.