Picture: 123RF/jabiru
Picture: 123RF/jabiru

Sydney — Australia plans to increase the maximum jail term to 15 years for anyone convicted of contaminating foodstuffs, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday, as a scare over sewing needles found in strawberries and other fruits grips the country. He described the action as "akin to terrorism".

Police are investigating more than 100 reports of needles found in fruit. Needles, first found in strawberries produced by one supplier in the northern state of Queensland, are now turning up around the country. On Tuesday, police in New South Wales said they were investigating incidents involving an apple and a banana.

Said Morrison, "We’re not mucking about. This is not on, this is just not on in this country." Calling the perpetrator a "coward and a grub", Morrison says the new maximum sentence would put the crime on par with "things like possessing child pornography and financing terrorism. That’s how seriously I take this."

"Just go back to buying strawberries like you used to, and take the precautions that you should," Morrison told Australians in a televised address. "Make a pav [pavlova] this weekend and put strawberries on it."

The scare has prompted a slew of supermarket recalls, and some stores in New Zealand have temporarily banned the sale of Australian strawberries. Farmers have been forced to pulp fruit and layoff pickers because of slower sales and lower wholesale prices. Authorities have suggested strawberries be cut up before they are eaten.

Nobody has sustained serious injury yet, and a senior Australian minister said many of the cases would turn out to be hoaxes. But with demand plunging, strawberry farmers have been forced to dump produce, casting a shadow over an industry worth A$160m ($115.84m).

Responding to the scare, Morrison said his government would seek to increase the maximum jail term to 15 years from 10 years for anyone convicted of tampering with food. The government will also move to criminalise hoax claims before parliament rises for a two-week holiday on Thursday.

"It’s not funny, putting the livelihoods of hard-working Australians at risk," the prime minister told reporters in Canberra. "If you do that sort of thing in this country, we will come after you and we will throw the book at you." Australia’s attorney-general Christian Porter said that the government was looking at introducing a maximum 10-year jail sentence for hoaxers.

While farmers welcomed the government action, many said they face financial ruin if demand does not recover quickly. "It is costing us a lot of money. On our own farm, [it costs] about $35,000 a day to harvest just the fruit we are dumping," said Gavin Scurr, a strawberry grower in Wamuran, 64km north of Brisbane.

Australia’s banking industry said it is willing to offer financial assistance to affected farmers.

Australian police said on Tuesday that they still do not know the motive behind the attacks and are still looking for suspects. They have asked the public for help with their investigation and are expected to increase a reward for information that helps resolve the case later on Wednesday.

Reuters, AFP