The Australian government is planning 15 years jail term for culprits who put needles within strawberries to endanger lives, spread scare across the nation and ruin strawberry industry.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the government is seriously investigating the cause of the sabotage.
More than 100 cases of people finding needles concealed within strawberries and other fruits such as apple and banana have been reported over the past one week in Western Australia, New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania and Southern Australia.
Among the complainants was a student at a primary school in Perth who bit into a strawberry and found a needle. A university student Sophia La Maccia, 19, found a needle in one of the strawberries her father had purchased from a supermarket in Spearwood. A man in York found a needle in a sink after washing strawberries.
If a proposed new law backed by opposition Labor party is passed this week, the act of putting needles in fruits will be treated on a par with crimes such as child pornography and terror financing, Morrison said.
The existing maximum sentence for contaminating food is only 10 years. The proposed additional five-year jail term may act as a deterrent for criminals who try to terrorise people by putting needles in fruits.
Copycat crimes are spreading across states involving even children. A child was arrested in New South Wales after admitting to putting needles in the fruit, police said, adding that the young culprit would be dealt with under the youth cautioning system.
The strawberry needle scare is affecting the livelihood of fruit growers as stores have started dumping strawberries. Product recalls have prompted several growers to destroy their crops.
Three states have offered US$72,500 as reward for information leading to the arrest of perpetrators as police investigation is widening across states.
Western Australia’s Premier Mark McGowan said anyone involved in this sort of vandalism will be jailed for 20 years.
The government has urged consumers to cut strawberries before consumption.
Fruits meant for exporters have to undergo mandatory screening through metal detectors or X-ray machines. The measure comes amid reports that Russia and the UK have blocked Australian imports of strawberries. New Zealand is set to remove Australian-grown berries from its supermarket shelves
In Queensland, where the first cases of needles in strawberries were reported, police are investigating intricate food supply chains. They are examining strawberry fields, packing sheds, picking, handling and distribution processes.
The federal government has pledged $720,000 to help strawberry industry through the current crisis. In Queensland, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced $1 million fund to help strawberry farmers in the wake of the needle scare.
Queensland strawberry growers called the latest vandalism with needles an act of commercial terrorism that severely hurt their multi-million-dollar industry.
If the vandals are not caught and punished and the needle scare continues, people will stop buying strawberries. This will throw farmers and suppliers out of jobs, they said.
In the meantime, a major Australian supermarket chain removed sewing needles from its shelves on Thursday amid the strawberry needle scare.