Ex-farm supervisor in Australia charged for contaminating strawberries with needles

Ex-farm supervisor in Australia charged for contaminating strawberries with needles

Customer Notice Signs displayed underneath packets of Australia strawberries
Customer notice signs are displayed underneath packets of Australia strawberries on sale at a supermarket in the central New South Wales town of Mudgee in Australia, on Sep 23, 2018. (Photo: Reuters/David Gray)

SYDNEY: A former farm supervisor was charged in court on Monday (Nov 12) for contaminating strawberries with needles, an episode that spurred one of Australia's biggest food scares.

Australia's strawberry industry, worth A$160 million (US$116 million), was rocked in September after nearly 200 complaints were made of sewing needles found in strawberries and other fruits.

Several major supermarkets withdrew the fruit as shoppers abandoned purchases, forcing some growers to dump fruit amid warnings of widespread bankruptcies.

My Ut Trinh, an Australian citizen who worked at one of the strawberry farms where the tampered produce was grown, was arrested and charged with seven counts of contaminating goods. 

Local media identified her employer as the Berrylicious and Berry Obsession farm - one of the growers at the heart of the scare.

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The court was told she was motivated by spite and revenge when she allegedly inserted the needles into the berries in early September, the Australian newspaper reported.

She was denied bail after prosecutors said she could suffer retribution for her alleged actions, the report added.

Detective Superintendent Jon Wacker said investigators had "strong evidence" including DNA.

"This has probably been one of the most trying investigations that I've been part of," Mr Wacker told reporters in Brisbane, the capital of Queensland state where the contamination crisis was first reported.

READ: Woman finds needle in apple following strawberry scare in Australia

Trinh faces up to 10 years in jail if found guilty after Australia's conservative government toughened sentencing in a bid to contain the crisis.

Australia also criminalised hoax claims.

Mr Wacker said police received 186 complaints of fruit contamination, of which 15 had been found to be hoaxes.

Strawberry growers welcomed the charges but blamed social media for the crisis.

"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 Queensland Strawberry Growers Association said in a statement.

READ: Australians urged to #SmashAStrawb in support of local farmers amid needle scandal

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

State premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said on Tuesday her government would set aside A$1 million to help farmers make it through the season.

Source: Reuters/AFP/jt