The federal government will move to increase the penalties for tampering with fruit, introducing new legislation this week as the nationwide crisis over needles in food continues to grow amid what appears to be multiple copycat crimes.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced $1 million in assistance to the strawberry industry yesterday, in addition to the $1 million support package from the Queensland government.
The Western Australian and NSW governments also joined Queensland in offering a $100,000 reward for information that leads to the capture of the culprits.
Tasmanians are being urged to cut up all fruit before eating after metal was found in a local apple in an apparent copycat of interstate needle contamination.
More than 100 reports of tampered fruit are being investigated across the country after needles were originally found in Queensland strawberries.
The moves come as a teenage boy reportedly found a metal object in an apple purchased from a Woolworths store in Hobart, yesterday, as he was cutting up the fruit. The fruit came from Tasmania, leading police to conclude it was a copycat act. Two strawberry contamination cases have also occurred in Hobart.
There have now been more than 100 reported cases of contaminated strawberries, although some are suspected to be hoaxes.
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said people sharing fake images on social media should delete the posts to stop them wasting police time.
“If there’s anyone that thinks … it’s anyway appropriate or amusing to take a photo of fruit they may already had, and to put an object into it and put it on Facebook or Twitter and to spread it around and contact health authorities, they are seriously deluded,” he said.
Morrison plans to increase the maximum sentence for food contamination from 10 years to 15 in a bid to deter offenders, especially copycats. The new laws will also introduce a new offence of recklessly contaminating fruit as well as tackling false information distributed on social media.
Fake posts on social media would see those responsible also facing prosecution.
The laws will not be retrospective, meaning the current offences will be prosecuted under the old laws of up to 10 years in jail.
Yesterday NSW police said that of the 20 incidents reported in NSW, some were copycat or pranks and unrelated to the initial contamination in Queensland.
NSW State Crime Command acting commander Stuart Smith said a young person had admitted to a prank, including putting needles in strawberries, and will be dealt with under the youth cautioning system.
The Prime Minister called those responsible for the strawberry scare cowards and grubs.
“You are putting the livelihoods of hard-working Australians at risk and you are scaring children,” he said.
“Some idiot, for his own reasons, has engaged in an act of sabotage it would seem, and that has put all of that risk for these people out there having a go.”
The new legislation is expected to be introduced to parliament today.
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