Queensland police have arrested a former strawberry industry worker for spiking strawberries with needles, a crime that fuelled a nationwide scare that crippled Australia’s strawberry industry.
The woman, a former supervisor at a strawberry farm in Queensland, was arrested Sunday and has been charged with seven counts of contamination of goods. Police say there was a “circumstance of aggravation,” meaning that if convicted, she faces up to 10 years in prison. The local news media identified her as My Ut Trinh, 50.
“This has probably been one of the most trying investigations that Ive been a part of,” Jon Wacker, a detective superintendent of the Drug and Serious Crime Group, said in a news conference Monday.
News that fruit was being tampered with first broke in September, after several people reported discovering needles in strawberries they had purchased. One 7-year-old girl bit into a contaminated strawberry but was not harmed. Another man from Queensland was less lucky: he was hospitalised after he swallowed half a needle while eating the fruit.
“It put me into shock,” the man, Hoani Hearne, told 9 News in an interview.
The incidents caused something of a nationwide hysteria, and led to more than 230 copycat incidents and false reports of similar strawberry spikings. Needles were also reported in some bananas and apples. Officials began urging people to cut up their strawberries before eating them.
Some supermarkets in Australia stopped stocking the fruit, and videos circulated of farmers dumping tons of ripe strawberries. Ultimately, 68 strawberry brands were affected, with 49 of them in Queensland, police said.
The events had a “crippling impact,” bringing Queenslands strawberry industry “to its knees,” Jennifer Rowling, a spokeswoman for the Queensland Strawberry Growers Association, said in a statement Sunday.
“It was a crisis driven by social media and the only real victims were the strawberry growers, and to some extent other Australian fruit growers and exporters,” she added.
In response, lawmakers pushed through tougher penalties for those found guilty of food contamination. The Queensland government announced that it would provide 1 million Australian dollars ($720,000) to offset the financial effect on the strawberry industry. The state produces 30,000 tons of strawberries each season — 40 percent of the countrys strawberries, they said.
While the growers association had said it suspected a “disgruntled ex-employee” of carrying out the initial contaminations, the womans exact motives remain unknown. She will appear before a Brisbane court Monday.
“All farmers and growers sincerely hope there will not be a repeat of past events,” Rowling said.
Strawberry sales are returning to normal, she added.