Police and health authorities are warning people to cut up strawberries before consuming them after sewing needles were found in punnets of the fruit from a Queensland grower.
And a day after going public with the problem, Queensland authorities say a potential copycat incident occurred at a Coles store in Gatton, west of Brisbane.
While the needles found in the initial attack had been inserted inside the fruit, the latest punnet had a metal rod placed inside the punnet, which had been purchased by a staff member on Thursday morning.
The initial problem involved punnets of the “Berry Obsession” and “Berrylicious” brands, sold in Woolworths stores in Queensland, NSW and Victoria, had been pulled from shelves, and the public urged to throw out any punnets they have.
While the problem first emerged on Sunday, authorities only issued warnings yesterday after two more contamination incidents emerged in Victoria late on Tuesday night.
Queensland chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young said that following today’s potential “copycat” incident, people should be “ultra cautious” and cut up any strawberries before consuming them.
“It’s quite safe to buy them but just cut them up and check there isn’t anything in there that shouldn’t be in there,” she said.
Acting Chief Detective Superintendent Terry Lawrence said anyone who finds anything in their fruit should contact police, who will come and collect them as potential evidence.
While the brands behind the initial incident were taken from shelves, authorities said the affected punnets would have expired, but people should check their fridges and freezers for stored strawberries and dispose of them.
Queensland Strawberry Growers Association issued a statement saying they “have reason to suspect that a disgruntled ex-employee may have orchestrated the occurrence”, but Det. Supt. Lawrence said “we’re not agreeing with that at this particular point of time”.
“We’re keeping a very open mind as to where this may have occurred,” he said, adding that Queensland police are working with officers in other states.
He said police are “comfortable” that the issue with the “Berry Obsession” and “Berrylicious” brands had now been resolved, having been taken off the market.
The needle problem first emerged in a Facebook post from Joshua Gane on September 9, who said they’d bought a punnet of “Berry Obsession” strawberries from Woolworths in Strathpine, 25km north of Brisbane, and was driving up the coast when his travelling companion bit through a strawberry and swallowed half a sewing needle.
“We then checked the other strawberries and found another sewing needle lodged inside one of them. We are now at the ER because he subsequently started experiencing severe abdominal pain,” Gane wrote.
The store manager subsequently contacted them and issued a recall, as well as contacting police and health officials. The injured man is still being assessed.
A mother of three in Gladstone also found two needles in a punnet while cutting up the fruit. Her nine-year-old son had also taken strawberries to school, but by the time she contacted the school to raise the alarm, he’d already bitten into the strawberry and discovered the needle. He was uninjured.
Police were notified about that incident today.
Det. Supt. Lawrence said officers were currently identifying past and present employees of the two farms concerned, which involves more than 100 people, with plans to interview them.
Charges of malicious acts to cause grievous bodily harm could lead to a prison sentence of 10 years.
Anyone with information should contact Crimestoppers on 1800 333 000.
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