Nearly a month since a strawberry with a needle in it was reported to Queensland Police, authorities have not revealed the source of the initial contamination. Life is slowly returning to normal for strawberry growers after needle tampering cases gripped Australia.

Queensland Police are still investigating the incidents, and in a statement said they would tell the public if any charges were laid. There were several confirmed cases of strawberries with needles found in them, with the first were reported in Queensland, and revealed by authorities on September 13.

The Queensland Government put out a $100,000 reward for information that led to the arrest of a culprit. Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt ordered an immediate investigation into the contamination, labelling the incidents “vicious crimes”, and the Federal Government announced a $1 million relief package for strawberry farmers.

At the time, the Queensland Strawberry Growers Association suspected a disgruntled ex-employee was behind the sewing needles found in a number of strawberries sold by Woolworths. During the height of the crisis, Growcom chief advocate Rachel McKenzie criticised government agencies for creating what she described as “hysteria” around the needle crisis, and said the response had tarnished the sector and led to copycat attacks that had seriously damaged the industry.

A Department of Agriculture and Water Resources spokesperson said Kuwait and Bahrain were the only countries to suspend Australian strawberry imports. “Retailers in Singapore and New Zealand made a commercial decision to remove Australian strawberries from sale — these were not decisions made by health authorities in those countries,” the spokesperson said.

Stronger control measures remain place for the export of fresh strawberries.

“These measures require that all strawberries exported from Australia are screened for the presence of metal contaminants,” the spokesperson said. “More than 100 consignments have been approved for export with these additional requirements, providing greater assurance for importing countries that Australian strawberries are safe.”

Woolworths has continued to stock strawberries throughout the period, and currently strawberries are coming from Queensland and Western Australia, with the Victorian season set to start in about two weeks. “We’re working closely with suppliers and growers to ensure strawberries remain available on our shelves for our customers to enjoy,” a spokesperson said.

Tony Sarks, the cropping manager at Riccardoes Tomatoes, a small pick-your-own strawberry and tomato farm near Port Macquarie on the NSW mid-north coast, said business had “pretty much recovered”.

“It was tough there for a while, but following the crisis the way the community got behind strawberry farmers was really impressive,” he said. “Now we’re into school holidays. Being a pick-your-own farm, we’ve managed to clear our crops, which we’re very happy about.”


Article and report by ABC Coffs Coast – Sarah Maunder

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