SYDNEY: The tainting of supermarket strawberries with sewing needles is comparable to "terrorism", Australia's prime minister said Wednesday (Sep 19), as he demanded tougher sentencing in response to a nationwide scare.
Urging Australians to make a strawberry pavlova this weekend to help struggling farmers, Scott Morrison demanded a change in the law to put the perpetrators behind bars for 15 years.
"We're not mucking about," said Morrison, after at least 20 pieces of fruit were found to be contaminated with needles or pins. "This is not on, this is just not on in this country," he said.
Calling the perpetrator a "coward and a grub", Morrison called on parliament to quickly raise the maximum sentence for such deliberate food contamination from ten to 15 years behind bars.
That, he said, would put the crime on par with "things like possessing child pornography and financing terrorism. That's how seriously I take this".
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.
"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 this weekend and put strawberries on it," he suggested.
Authorities have suggested strawberries be cut up before they are eaten.
Australian police on Tuesday said they still did not know the motive behind the attacks and were still looking for suspects.
They have asked the public for help with their investigation and are expected later Wednesday to increase a reward for information that helps resolve the case.
The authorities have also complained that the vast majority of the 100 reported cases were hoaxes, and warned that pranksters posting images on Facebook claiming that they have discovered tainted fruit could also face prosecution and potential jail time.
Police in New South Wales said a "young person" has admitted putting needles in strawberries as a copycat prank and will be dealt with under the youth cautioning system.