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Needles-in-strawberries culprits still at large; Queensland acts

Sydney

AUSTRALIAN police said on Tuesday that they are investigating reports of dozens of cases of needles embedded in strawberries and other fruit, and warned that those responsible could be jailed for 10 years.

The issue is fast turning into one of Australia's biggest food scares that has halted exports to New Zealand and forced at least one strawberry farm to start dumping its fruit at the peak of the season.

Another farm is installing metal detectors, it has been reported. The needles are now turning up in fruit around the country, after having been originally found in strawberries produced by one supplier in the northern state of Queensland.

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The state, Australia's largest strawberry-producing region, is particularly vulnerable to a sustained downturn in the market.

Its premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said on Tuesday that the government would set aside A$1 million to help farmers through the season. The state government is also offering a A$100,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the sabotage.

Meanwhile, police in New South Wales (NSW) state said on Tuesday that needles had been found in more than 20 strawberry punnets, and there were reports that a banana and apple also had needles in them.

Police in other states are also investigating reports of similar sabotage, though they have not given details on the number of complaints.

NSW detective superintendent Danny Doherty told reporters in Sydney: "Any incidents of contamination or copycat incidents impact on the industry and are very unhelpful for the authorities. They will be treated as contamination, a serious offence that carries 10 years in jail."

One person has told reporters that he suffered minor injuries to his mouth after biting on a strawberry with a needle embedded in it.

Previous contamination cases in Australia have led to arrests, but not convictions. In 2000, a man was accused of lacing paracetamol tablets with strychnine, prompting the tablets to be recalled nationwide.

The suspect died in jail before being tried.

In 2006, a case against a woman accused of contaminating salads at Sizzler restaurants with rat poison was deemed mentally unfit for trial.

The strawberry industry is worth A$160 million (S$158 million), said the sector, with most of the fruit consumed locally; a small amount of the crop is consumed in New Zealand.

Both of New Zealand's biggest supermarkets have halted Australian strawberry orders, even though New Zealand's Ministry of Primary Industries has confirmed that none of the contaminated strawberry brands has made it on to shop shelves.

Australian police said on Tuesday that they had yet to identify a suspect or a motive. While six brands have been directly affected and withdrawn from sale, consumers have begun to shun the fruit altogether. REUTERS