Over the past week, Australians were forced to ask an alarming question: Why is someone putting sewing needles in our strawberries?
Across the country, shoppers had reported finding needles or pins in packages of strawberries bought from supermarkets. In total, there were more than 100 reports of people finding needles in strawberries and other fruits, officials have said.
On Wednesday, new Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison released a video in which he said that “some idiot” was behind the problem and announced he would be introducing new laws that would increase the penalties for people who sabotage food products in the country, as well as those who post on social media about the practice.
“It’s not funny. It’s not right. It’s causing real distress and harm in our community,” he said, shortly before taking a bite out of a strawberry himself.
Under proposed new laws, the maximum penalty for tampering with food would increase from 10 years in prison to 15. Morrison said the panic surrounding strawberries was damaging an entire industry and that consumers could do their part to battle the problem by buying Australian fruit.
So far, one suspect has been arrested in the case. New South Wales police officials announced Wednesday that a young boy was arrested after admitting he put needles in strawberries and that he would now be dealt with under the “youth cautioning system.”
But officials think this suspect was simply a copycat. The crime was first reported in neighboring Queensland, where local strawberry farmers have said that they had reason to believe they were being targeted by a disgruntled former employee with a grudge against the industry.
Reports of needles in strawberries and other fruits have spread to all six Australian states, leading police to say they suspect that the crime has moved beyond an isolated incident and turned into a trend.
For Australia’s fruit and vegetable growing industry, the needles have proved to be an expensive disaster. Strawberries have been taken off supermarket shelves, foreign trading countries have blocked Australian imports, and wholesalers have been forced to buy metal detectors to check their produce.
“The sabotage of our strawberry industry is not just an attack on hard-working growers and workers, but it reaches into almost every home and school lunch box,” Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said Wednesday.
Authorities have found the scale of the problem hard to gauge. Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said that 100 people had reported contaminated fruit but added that many of these may be false alarms or hoaxes, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
State governments have offered a reward of 100,000 Australian dollars ($72,000) for information, while the federal government has pledged 1 million Australian dollars ($720,000) to help the industry.
But everyday Australian consumers have also made their own efforts to combat the problem after they were advised to cut up strawberries before they ate them. On social media, users shared strawberry-based recipes under the hashtag #smashastrawb — including salads, cakes and even drinks.