Staff records hit straw­berry probe

The Australian - - THE NATION - MICHAEL McKENNA

Poor em­ployee record keep­ing is ham­per­ing the po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the nee­dle sab­o­tage of straw­ber­ries that has now spread to six brands across Aus­tralia’s eastern states.

Coles and Aldi su­per­mar­kets pulled the fruit from their shelves across the coun­try, with the ex­cep­tion of Western Aus­tralia, as some grow­ers de­stroyed berries amid plum­met­ing sales at the end of the win­ter pick­ing sea­son.

Po­lice have con­firmed that nee­dle con­tam­i­na­tion of straw­ber­ries has been re­ported in Queens­land, NSW and Victoria.

It fol­lows the first re­port early last week when Bris­bane trades­man Hoani Hearne, 21, was treated in hos­pi­tal as the only known per­son to have swal­lowed a con­tam­i­nated straw­berry.

Since then there have been seven con­firmed in­ci­dents of sewing needles be­ing found em­bed­ded in straw­ber­ries grown in Queens­land.

Po­lice are in­ves­ti­gat­ing three re­ports of con­tam­i­na­tion in NSW and three in Victoria.

Po­lice have been gath­er­ing the names of more than 100 cur­rent and for­mer farm work­ers in an ef­fort to iden­tify sus­pects and will now look for links be­tween the three brands con­tam­i­nated.

The Queens­land Straw­berry Grow­ers As­so­ci­a­tion said there was “rea­son to sus­pect a dis­grun­tled ex-em­ployee’’ was be­hind the ini­tial round of con­tam­i­na­tions, which po­lice sus­pect has spread to other prod­ucts by copy­cat sabo­teurs.

Sev­eral sources have told The Aus­tralian the in­ves­ti­ga­tion has been ham­pered by poor record­keep­ing of ca­sual and sea­sonal work­ers on straw­berry farms.

“There are a num­ber of pre­vi­ous is­sues be­tween em­ployee and em­ployer that have raised sus­pi­cions,’’ a source said.

“Un­for­tu­nately the in­dus­try is not known for keep­ing good em­ployee records. In­ves­ti­ga­tors are strug­gling to track down these for­mer em­ploy­ees known to have griev­ances.’’

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment yes­ter­day moved to take over co­or­di­na­tion of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion through the Aus­tralian Health Pro­tec­tion Prin­ci­pal Com­mit­tee.

It fol­lows Queens­land Premier An­nasta­cia Palaszczuk’s week­end an­nounce­ment of a $100,000 re­ward for in­for­ma­tion lead­ing to an ar­rest.

The Queens­land gov­ern­ment is con­sid­er­ing of­fer­ing fi­nan­cial as­sis­tance to grow­ers who de­stroyed crops in the past week as de­mand fell across the coun­try.

Berry Ob­ses­sion, Berry Li­cious and Don­ny­brook Berries have re­called their straw­ber­ries na­tion­wide.

‘It’s a gen­eral at­tack on the pub­lic and it’s also an at­tack on a spe­cific in­dus­try’

GREG HUNT FED­ERAL HEALTH MIN­IS­TER

Po­lice have also con­firmed they are in­ves­ti­gat­ing con­tam­i­na­tion of fruit sold by De­light­ful Straw­ber­ries, Love Berries and Oa­sis in stores in NSW, Queens­land, Victoria and the ACT.

Health Min­is­ter Greg Hunt has or­dered the na­tional food safety watch­dog to as­sess the con­tam­i­na­tion. “This is a very vi­cious crime and it’s a gen­eral at­tack on the pub­lic and it’s also an at­tack on a spe­cific in­dus­try,” he said.

A warn­ing to throw out or cut up straw­ber­ries re­mains in Queens­land, NSW, Victoria and South Aus­tralia.

On Fri­day, Queens­land Chief Health Of­fi­cer Jeannette Young said there had been “a lot of re­ports” of other po­ten­tial con­tam­i­na­tion cases that had yet to be con­firmed. Those cases are still be­ing in­ves­ti­gated.

Queens­land Po­lice Act­ing Chief Su­per­in­ten­dent Terry Lawrence urged any­body who dis­cov­ered con­tam­i­nated straw­ber­ries to keep the ev­i­dence and re­port it to po­lice. Such crimes carry a max­i­mum jail term of 10 years.

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