People across Australia, including a 7-year-old girl, have bitten into store-bought strawberries in recent weeks and found needles hidden inside, leading to widespread food safety concerns and an urgent hunt for the culprits.
The needles have been discovered in several strawberry brands and found across all six states, and the police suspect copycats have increased the risk.
The slew of highly publicized incidents has led supermarkets to stop selling strawberries and the police to urge caution while eating the fruit, turning the simple pleasure of biting into a strawberry into a fearful act.
The strawberry industry and the authorities have tried to reassure the public and offer temporary solutions.
“Advice continues to be eat strawberries, but cut them up and have a look first,” the police in Queensland State said in a Facebook post.
But a steady stream of news stories has stoked concern. On Sunday, a 7-year-old girl in South Australia bit into a strawberry with a needle but was unharmed. On Monday, a man in Western Australia discovered a needle in a strawberry when he cut into it. Earlier this month 21-year-old Queensland man had to rush to a hospital after swallowing part of a sewing needle.
“It wasn’t a pleasant surprise,” the man, Hoani Hearne, told 9 News last week.
On Monday, the police in Queensland said that a 62-year-old woman had contaminated a banana with a metal object, but they did not believe she was connected to the other attacks. It was the first such incident that involved a different type of fruit.
The strawberry industry has scrambled to regain consumer confidence, with one farm showing off a metal detector it said every case of strawberries would pass through. At least six brands have recalled their berries.
The Queensland Strawberry Growers Association, which said it believed a disgruntled former employee was behind the initial attacks, said the berries were most likely compromised “between the time they were packed and the time they were purchased.”
“Regretfully, preventing random acts of extremism, sabotage and simple maliciousness from people with a grudge appears to be an increasing challenge across our society,” it said in a statement.
The health minister, Greg Hunt, has ordered a federal investigation, while the Queensland government has offered a reward of 100,000 Australian dollars — about $72,000 — in its search for a culprit.
“Sadly, three are those in the community who perhaps don’t understand the harm that they’re doing, and the potential for serious injury or loss of life to someone who might accidentally eat one of these fruit,” Ian Stewart, commissioner of the Queensland Police Service, told reporters.