News broke on Wednesday (12 September) that a number of needles had been found hidden inside strawberries sold by Woolworths, with incidents reported in both Queensland and Victoria.
Queensland Strawberry Growers Association (QSGA) issued a statement on its Facebook page, stating that the incident has so far affected two brands.
“To our current knowledge, two labels, Berry Licious and Berry Obsession, are the only affected lines,” it said.
But rather than being an extortion attempt, the association revealed the sinister act could be a vindictive attempt to sabotage the association and the local industry by one of its former staff members.
“At this time, the Queensland Strawberry Growers Association have reason to suspect that a disgruntled ex-employee may have orchestrated the occurrence,” it said.
“The Queensland Strawberry Growers Association are waiting on more information from Queensland police on this matter and will update the Australian public as news becomes available to us.”
The attack comes at a difficult time for Australian farmers, as drought grips much of Queensland and the whole of NSW, as well as a glut of strawberries causing prices to crash.
QSGA has been contacted for further comment on the matter.
Woolworths confirmed it received three reports from customers about needles being discovered inside fruit sold at its stores.
“Woolworths takes food safety very seriously and is working closely with authorities as they investigate this matter,” a spokesperson said.
“We have withdrawn Berry Obsession and Berry Licious branded strawberries from sale while this incident is being investigated with our suppliers.
“Customers are advised to return these products to their local Woolworths for a full refund.”
The supermarket giant did not respond to questions about how many punnets are affected by the recall.
Consumers left divided
Social media lit up with comments in response to the incident, but not all were supportive of the strawberry industry.
Many people described the act as “sick” and “demented”, and moved to reassure growers they would not stop buying the fruit.
A couple, however, implied that poor conditions for workers are likely to breed poor behaviour in return.
“Some farms don’t treat their workers well and [are] underpaying them,” one said on the QSGA Facebook page.
“Low paid workers perhaps… who’s to blame?” replied another.
A third person suggested the culprit will be impossible to find, as most fruit pickers are in Australia on working holiday visas from overseas.
“[The] majority of the strawberry workers are visa workers from Europe or Asia. So who ever did it would be long gone by now,” they said.
Growers scramble to reassure customers
Strawberry growers across the country have scrambled to distance themselves and their fruit from the situation.
Berrylicious Strawberries issued a statement to Facebook saying that, despite a similar name to one of the affected brands, its strawberries were not impacted by the scare.
“Dear customers, Just to clarify, we are not associated with berrylicious strawberries Queensland and we have never sold to Woolworths,” it said.
“These strawberries are grown in a farm in Queensland. Thank you all for your continues [sic] support.”
Police move to clarify the situation
Queensland Police issued a statement in a bid to clarify the extent of the situation, and what to do in the event more needles are discovered.
The statement, published on its website at 5.42pm on Wednesday, is republished in full below:
The Queensland Police Service has commenced an investigation into the contamination of strawberries in Queensland.
Inquiries to date indicate the contamination affects two brands of strawberries – “Berry Obsession” and “Berry Licious”.
It is understood the brands are sold in stores in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.
Police are liaising with retailers to ensure that all stock is removed from sale.
The contamination relates to what appears to be sewing needles inserted in strawberries.
Police are urging anyone who locates strawberries containing the needles to contact Policelink for further advice on 131 444.
Queensland’s Chief Health Officer Dr Jeannette Young said anyone else who had bought the brands of strawberries without signs of tampering should return them to the store or throw them away.
“While it is expected that berries picked early last week would now not be useable, many people freeze the fruit for later use,” she said.
“If you are in doubt, just throw them out.
“Any strawberries bought from 13 September are safe.
“Any strawberries that you are certain are not the brands Berry Licious and Berry Obsession, are safe.
“If you believe you have eaten a needle, we would recommend you speak to your doctor or call 13 HEALTH.
“I love strawberries, there is no reason to stop eating strawberries, we just need to be aware of this incident.”
Anyone with information that could assist the investigation is asked to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.
If you have information for police, contact Policelink on 131 444 or provide information using the online form 24hrs per day.
You can report information about crime anonymously to Crime Stoppers, a registered charity and community volunteer organisation, by calling 1800 333 000 or via crimestoppersqld.com.au 24hrs per day.