Strawberries have been pulled from supermarkets across the country. Picture: Erik Anderson/AAP
Strawberries have been pulled from supermarkets across the country. Picture: Erik Anderson/AAP

Needle crisis puts $500 million strawberry industry at risk

TONNES of strawberries are being dumped or going to waste around the country as the needle contamination scare threatens the future of the half-a-billion-dollar industry.

Western Australia Strawberry Growers Association head Jamie Michael shared a photo of truckloads of fruit being dumped after a needle was found in South Australia in a punnet sourced from WA.

"We are dumping strawberries - we have stopped some of the varieties already," he told the ABC.

"With strawberries you need to continue picking them, if you stop picking them for a few days then they stop producing fruit, so we're trying to weather out this storm and hope that things get better, but to do that it's costing.

"It's such a shame. Right now, we're in the peak of the season, the fruit is eating well, this should be the time when (growers) get some sales and get to put some money back into the bank."

It comes as the head of the industry peak body warns about a dozen Queensland strawberry growers are likely to go under this year and more could follow if the fallout from the needle crisis spreads.

With wholesale prices falling by half to 50 to 60 cents per punnet, Strawberries Australia chair John Calle said there was "no point getting up in the morning to pick strawberries below cost".

"We've already had repercussions in Queensland, what's going to happen in Victoria I don't know," said Mr Calle, a 38-year strawberry grower based in Wandin North, about 40km east of Melbourne.

"We're still four weeks away (from picking season in Victoria). The million-dollar question is how it's going to affect us. We're putting things in place at the moment, growers are putting metal detectors in and everything else the supermarkets demand."

Strawberries are grown year-round in Australia, with about one third of the country's roughly 620 growers located in Queensland, one third in Victoria, 22 per cent in Western Australia and a small number in Tasmania and NSW.

 

Strawberries being dumped in WA. Picture: Jamie Michael via ABC
Strawberries being dumped in WA. Picture: Jamie Michael via ABC

 

The industry was plunged into chaos last Sunday after a customer from Burpengary in Queensland bit into a strawberry with a needle inside it and ended up in hospital.

Since then, needles or pins have been reported in strawberries in NSW, Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT. Affected brands include Berry Obsession, Berry Licious, Love Berry, Donnybrook Berries, Delightful Strawberries and Oasis.

In response, Coles and Aldi pulled all strawberries from their shelves, while Woolworths pulled only the affected brands it stocked.

Aldi announced on Monday it would resume selling non-affected brands. That announcement came hours after New Zealand supermarket chain Foodstuffs said it would stop selling Australian strawberries.

"The food waste associated with this matter is significant and has been unavoidable," Aldi said in a statement. "We are actively working with our valued primary producers and the supporting supply chain to do what we can to minimise the impact and cost of the recent withdrawals."

Coles also said it recommenced the supply of strawberries into its stores on Monday afternoon.

"Coles has worked with our suppliers to implement additional control measures to ensure strawberries are inspected before they are sent to supermarkets," a spokesperson for the grocery store giant said.

"Queensland Health has advised people should cut up strawberries before consuming them."

Queensland Police told the ABC the contamination of the strawberries was done "obviously to injure somebody". It's believed some of the cases may be copycats.

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has offered a $100,000 reward. "Whoever is behind this is not just putting families at risk across Queensland and the rest of Australia - they are putting an entire industry at risk," she said on Saturday.

"I would urge anyone with information that may be relevant to this incident in any way to contact police as soon as possible."

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt described it as a "vicious crime" and ordered the national food safety watchdog to assess the states' handling of the contamination.

Last week, the Queensland Strawberry Growers' Association said it had "reason to suspect that a disgruntled ex-employee" may be behind the needle scare.

"All we have to do is catch this mongrel," Mr Calle said. "He's buggering the community and destroying the wider industry. I think the best medicine is for the media to stop airing (these cases) and let the police do their work."

Mr Calle said it was only a small number of punnets affected out of millions, and he worried the media coverage was encouraging copycats. "The media is giving too much air for what it is," he said.

"All we can do is put things in place to make sure it doesn't happen, but how do we stop a heart attack? At the end of the day strawberries don't grow needles, someone's physically (putting them in). It's a criminal act."

Mr Calle said it was too early to predict what the ultimate financial impact would be, but that he held grave concerns for his fellow growers.

"I can't predict the future," he said. "Last I heard between 10 and 12 growers will probably go out of business this year because of (selling) below cost," he said. "It's not going to be easy to sort things out.

- with AFP


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