Staff records hit strawberry probe
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.