View from above: Dead strawberries forever
THIS is the image of an industry in crisis - a mountain of discarded strawberries so enormous it took two days of loading and unloading trucks to create it.
Queensland strawberry farmers yesterday announced mass destruction of their produce and huge job losses as incidents of needle contamination continue to be reported across the country.
Some of Queensland's most experienced detectives from the State Crime Command are working to find the culprits as Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk pleaded with the community to provide information that would help police.
Police yesterday rushed to investigate a report of a child biting down on a needle-contaminated strawberry at a Brisbane school, only to discover it was a hoax.
And industry advocates reacted with fury to what they described as "mass hysteria" and "mishandling" by interstate authorities they claim has ruined strawberry farmers.
There have been three confirmed incidents in Queensland of needles hidden in strawberries, resulting in three brands being pulled from shelves - Donnybrook Berries, Berry Obsession and Berry Licious.
Needles and pins have since been reported in strawberries in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia, Tasmania and the ACT. Most reports are believes to be copycats.
NSW police yesterday announced incidents of a needle-contaminated apple and banana.
In Queensland, a 62-year-old woman was cautioned and "referred to appropriate support services" after she was spotted poking a pin into a banana at a supermarket in Maryborough. Police said it was an isolated incident.
As detectives question staff at Queensland strawberry farms, officers from Australian Border Force detained two workers at a property near Caloundra found working without appropriate visas.
Elimbah-based Donnybrook Berries yesterday shared heartbreaking footage of thousands of kilograms of strawberries being dumped.
"We are doing everything we can to get our company back up and running," Leena Lee Cufari, from the family-run farm, said yesterday.
Her daughter, Stephanie Chheang, posted shocking vision of the wasted fruit to social media, showing the tragic reality faced by Queensland growers in the wake of the scandal.
"This here is worth more than you could ever imagine and within 3 days we lost it all," she said.
"My mum works day through to the night, controlling the shed and her 250 employees, making sure her strawberries are packed to perfection.
"This will not stop my family from doing what they do best, if anything they're going to do better."
Suncoast Harvest, on the Sunshine Coast, told 100 staff they no longer had jobs as they set about "spraying out healthy paddocks of luscious, juicy berries".
"Hopefully they find who has committed this awful crime against our industry and our favourite fruit and against Australian consumers and farmers. Food tampering carries maximum penalties for good reason."
Ms Palaszczuk announced a $1 million fund that will be used to "boost consumer confidence through promoting the quality of Queensland strawberries".
Jennifer Rowling, from Strawberries Australia, called for calm, saying there were only a "very small number" of confirmed cases.
"This issue has attracted attention as far away as Russia and the UK, and as a result a number of our trade partners have either already blocked Australian strawberry imports or are talking about doing so," she said.
Ms Palaszczuk's pledge was matched by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who said the Federal Government would provide $1 million for more food safety officials on the ground, to increase detection and fast track recalls when they are requested by state and territory governments.
"We stand ready to work with the Queensland police when asked to support their criminal investigations," he said.
"We welcome the support offered by the Queensland Government and we are carefully reviewing what additional action may be available to us."
The Department of Agriculture yesterday announced interim control measures for the export of fresh strawberries, including a "nil tolerance" of metal contaminants.
"In order for strawberry export permits to be approved, exporters will be required to provide assurance to the department that their consignment is free from metal contaminants," a spokeperson said.
"Interim control measures can include an assurance that the fruit will go through an effective metal screening process (metal detectors/X-ray) prior to export, or on-farm metal screening with measures to ensure product security has been maintained post screening.
"Visual inspection alone is not an acceptable measure."