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27 May 2024

Strawberry Needle Contamination - ex-farm supervisor charged

Photo: AFP


Police investigating a major Australian strawberry needle contamination scare that sparked nationwide panic on Monday identified a former farm supervisor as their main suspect.

Pins and needles were found stuck into the fruit in September, leading supermarkets to pull boxes from shelves across Australia and New Zealand and forcing farmers to dump crops.

The sabotage and a rash of suspected hoaxes and copycat attacks also prompted the national government to raise criminal penalties for fruit tampering.

My Ut Trinh, 50, who worked at one of the strawberry farms where the tampered produce was grown, was arrested and charged with seven counts of contaminating goods by Queensland state police on Sunday.

"This has probably been one of the most trying investigations that I've been part of," Detective Superintendent Jon Wacker told reporters in Brisbane.

Wacker said Trinh, an Australian citizen, "was a supervisor at a farm", with Queensland's Courier Mail identifying her employer as the Berrylicious and Berry Obsession farm - one of the growers at the heart of the scare.

The newspaper added that the suspect was believed to have grievances about her employer, and the police case involved discussions she allegedly had with others about seeking revenge.

Wacker would not comment on what Trinh's motives may have been, but said investigators had "strong evidence" including DNA.

He said police collected 230 reports nationwide of strawberry contamination affecting 68 brands, most within his state, with the majority involving sewing needles.

Some cases were also found to be "a hoax or a false complaint", Wacker added.

Police had earlier questioned at least two minors over suspected hoaxes.

The Queensland Strawberry Growers Association welcomed the arrest, but noted the high number of unresolved cases, adding that the seven counts in Trinh's chargesheet suggested that most of the 230 reports were either copycat actions or hoaxes.

"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," the association said in a statement.

Needles in strawberries - Australian woman arrested

A woman has been arrested after a "complex" investigation into an Australian strawberry scare where needles were found stuck into the fruit, police said Sunday, in a crisis that sparked nationwide panic.

Queensland state authorities offered a large reward and the national government raised jail terms for such crimes after sewing needles were found in plastic boxes of the fruit sold in supermarkets in September.

Since the first case came to light when a man was taken to hospital with stomach pains after consuming strawberries, more than 100 alleged incidents of pins and needles found in fruit, mostly strawberries, were reported in September around the country.

One incident was also reported in New Zealand.

Police said a 50-year-old woman was arrested on Sunday afternoon "following a complex... and extensive investigation" into the contamination case.

"The Queensland Police Service coordinated a national investigative response with multiple government, law enforcement and intelligence agencies," they added in a statement.
The woman was set to be charged Sunday evening and appear in court in Brisbane on Monday.

Police did not reveal any further details, including what the charges would be or the reasons and motives behind her alleged involvement.

The sabotage crisis led supermarkets to pull the fruit from the shelves and saw farmers dump tonnes of the unwanted berry.

The government raised the maximum prison sentence for fruit tampering from 10 to 15 years.