20 Sep 2018

Australia vows crackdown over strawberry needle scare

6:07 am on 20 September 2018

New laws will be introduced so people contaminating strawberries face more jail time, the Australian Prime Minister has announced.

Fresh strawberry at market in plastic boxes.

Australians are being urged to continuing buying strawberries with care after strawberries that have been tampered with were found across five states. Photo: 123rf.com

Scott Morrison has described those who have hidden needles in fruit as "cowards" and "grubs", urging people to continuing buying strawberries with care.

Contaminated strawberries have been found across five states and investigations are ongoing, with the West Australian Government offering a $100,000 reward for information.

A young person has been arrested after admitting putting needles in the fruit as a copycat prank, police said.

The child would be "dealt with under the youth cautioning system," New South Wales Acting Assistant Commissioner Stuart Smith said.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said about 100 people had reported contaminated strawberries, although many of these may be hoaxes or false alarms.

He urged people thinking it may be funny to share images of needles in fruit on social media to delete their posts, warning it was distracting police from the real crime.

Earlier this week, Woolworths NZ and Foodstuffs stopped the distribution of Australian strawberries.

Foodstuff's main two supermarket chains are Pak'n'Save and New World.

Foodstuffs said it was confident there was no product in its stores that have been affected but for added reassurance it elected to halt distribution.

Woolworths New Zealand, the parent company of Countdown, SuperValue, Woolworths and Fresh Choice, later said it had done the same thing.

Mr Morrison said new laws were needed urgently to dissuade any copycat offenders, including increasing the maximum jail time for contaminating food from 10, to 15 years.

The Morrison Government will also introduce a new offence of recklessly contaminating fruit, which will carry a similar jail time.

The prime minister said the laws would be drafted with an intent to pass them through Parliament this week.

"It's not a joke, it's not funny," Mr Morrison said.

"You are putting the livelihoods of hard-working Australians at risk and you are scaring children, and you are a coward and a grub.

"Some idiot, for his own reasons, has engaged in an act of sabotage it would seem, and that has put all of that risk for these people out there having a go."

Mr Porter said the new laws would send a massive deterrent to anyone who would further cripple the industry.

"This is a very important addition to our criminal offences, which is why the prime minister is going to insist that it be passed by the end of the week."

Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has given conditional support for the new laws.

"Labor will work with the government on supporting farmers and stopping these despicable acts," Mr Fitzgibbon said.

"We haven't been briefed on [Wednesday's] announcement, but on the face of it, it looks reasonable and we are glad the government has listened to Labor's calls for more support."

Fake social media posts under fire

Senior ministers said the new laws would also cover those who make false statements about contamination of food on social media.

"Even if they did not intend that to be consumed by someone, you are potentially engaging in a very serious behaviour," Mr Porter said.

Australian Federal Police commissioner Andrew Colvin warned those sharing fake posts on social media could face prosecution.

"If there's anyone that thinks ... it's anyway appropriate or amusing to take a photo of fruit they may already had, and to put an object into it and put it on Facebook or Twitter and to spread it around and contact health authorities, they are seriously deluded," Mr Dutton said.

"They are potentially committing serious criminal offences."

The Federal Government has already announced $AU1 million ($NZ1.098m) to help deal with the crisis, fast-track product recalls and to detect contamination.

The scare has prompted product recalls, forcing some growers in the $AU130m annual industry to destroy their crops.

Exporters have been ordered to undergo tighter checks, including mandatory screening of produce through metal detectors or X-ray machines.