Woman arrested over Australia strawberry needle scare


SYDNEY - A woman has been charged after a "complex" investigation into an Australian strawberry scare where needles were found stuck into the fruit, police said on Sunday (Nov 11), in a crisis that sparked nationwide panic.

Queensland state authorities offered a large reward and the national government raised jail terms for such crimes after sewing needles were found in plastic boxes of the fruit sold in supermarkets in September.

Since the first case came to light when a man was taken to hospital with stomach pains after consuming strawberries, more than 100 alleged incidents of pins and needles found in fruit, mostly strawberries, were reported in September around the country.

One incident was also reported in neighbouring New Zealand.

Police said a 50-year-old woman was arrested and charged on Sunday afternoon with seven counts of contaminating goods "following a complex... and extensive investigation".

"This is a major and unprecedented police investigation with a lot of complexities involved," Detective Superintendent Jon Wacker said in a statement. "The Queensland Police Service has allocated a significant amount of resources to ensure those responsible are brought to justice."

The woman was set to be charged on Sunday evening and appear in court in Brisbane on Monday.

She faces up to 10 years' imprisonment and is due in a Brisbane court on Monday.

Australian police investigating over 100 reports of sewing needles found in strawberries

  • A scare over needles found in strawberries and other fruits gripped the country.
  • Consumers remained wary, forcing retailers in Australia and New Zealand to pull strawberries from store shelves.
  • Police are investigating more than 100 reports of sewing needles found in strawberries, which have forced farmers to dump fruit as demand plummets, and cast a shadow over an industry worth A$160 million.
  • The legislation was rushed through in less than a day as lawmakers try to repair public trust in the strawberry industry.
  • Strawberry farmers have welcomed the action, saying they faced financial ruin if demand did not recover quickly.
  • Australia on Thursday increased the jail term to 15 years for anyone convicted of contaminating foodstuffs.

Police did not reveal the reasons and motives behind her alleged involvement.

The sabotage crisis led supermarkets to pull the fruit from the shelves and saw farmers dump tonnes of the unwanted berry. The government raised the maximum prison sentence for fruit tampering from 10 to 15 years.

Queensland Strawberry Growers Association spokesman Jennifer Rowling welcomed the news and said the crisis had a "crippling impact" on the state's strawberry growers.

"However, it is disconcerting that the charges relate to only six or seven punnets (plastic boxes) of strawberries, proving that the majority of... incidents were copycats or false reports," she told national broadcaster ABC.