Strawberry needle cases an act of harm meant to ‘instil fear’, criminologist says
18th Sept 2018
The needle contamination scandal engulfing the Australian strawberry industry is a series of “deliberate acts” designed to instil fear in the community, a Queensland criminologist says.
Health Minister Greg Hunt ordered a federal investigation into the matter on Monday after a number of confirmed cases in which sewing needles were found in strawberries across Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania.
Late on Monday afternoon, a case also emerged in Western Australia when a man in the town of York, 100 kilometres east of Perth, called police after finding the needle while preparing strawberries for his family.
Griffith University criminologist Dr Danielle Harris said food tampering, although rare, was a very deliberate act.
“We have lots of different explanations for why people commit crime, from free will, rational choice, routine activities, the impact of a traumatic childhood, abuse of substances, a difficult home environment, residential mobility, etcetera,” Dr Harris said.
“Food tampering is one of those things where it’s the epitome of free will — what we’re seeing here is somebody who wanted to inflict harm and wanted to instil fear.”
Dr Harris said it was difficult to speculate on the reason why people would target the strawberry industry.
“The idea that it is a disgruntled employee or that somebody was seeking some kind of revenge, or somebody was seeking money is probably a reasonable explanation because that ties in to that free will,” she said.
“We’re not talking about an accident here — it’s not a crime of passion, it didn’t happen while somebody was drunk, it’s not something where we have those mitigating circumstances.
“This is something where the person wanted to instil fear and create harm.
“The copycat cases do seem to be a troll-like activity and it’s certainly attention-seeking.”
Supermarket Coles have pulled all strawberries from their shelves, while Woolworths has only pulled affected brands.
On Monday, Aldi announced it would restock with selected brands after pulling all strawberries from sale over the weekend.
South Australian strawberry grower Brenton Sherry said he did not believe the problems were occurring at the grower end of the production chain.
“You cannot have six to eight labels that have been doctored — that means there are five or six packing houses in Queensland [involved], it can’t be happening there, it has to be happening somewhere else,” he said.
Mr Sherry said there was only one solution.
“Supermarkets have to have metal detectors at point of sale,” Mr Sherry said.
Queensland Police Commissioner Ian Stewart said officers continued to work hard to find those responsible for the strawberry contamination.
“We’re focusing very, very much on supply chain, the people involved in that,” Mr Stewart said.
“This is a very, very significant economically powerful industry particularly in the south-east of Queensland and obviously of great concern.
“The Government has been very plain and direct to me about the need to do everything possible to try to identify the people responsible for this.
“One of the challenges, of course, is while we’ll take every report to us very seriously and we will run out every bit of information the potential for copycat-type events in this sort of situation is very real.”
Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the strawberry industry remained vital to the state’s economy.
“We are in constant contact with the growers association,” she said.
“The chief health officer is still encouraging people to chop up their strawberries and I would encourage people to follow the chief health officer’s advice.
“It’s a $160 million industry to Queensland, it provides hundreds of jobs and is a vital part of our produce that not just goes nationally but internationally as well.
“It is unbelievable that any person could do this knowing the eventual harm or destruction it could do to a human life.”
Queensland Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington said she found the issue deeply concerning.
“I’ll continue the lobbying of the State Government to make sure that they actually understand that these growers and the supply chain need a hand,” she said.