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Needled Strawberries: Food Terrorism Down Under

There is something peculiar doing the rounds in Australian food circles.  The land down under, considered something of a nirvana of fruit and vegetable production despite horrendous droughts and calamitous cyclones, is facing a new challenge: human agency, namely in the form of despoliation of strawberries.

The results have knocked Australia’s highly concentrated supermarket chains, with both Coles and Aldi withdrawing all their fruit with a nervousness that has not been seen in years.  A spate of incidents involving “contamination”, or pins stuck in the fruit, have manifested across a range of outlets. Strawberry brands including Donnybrook Berries, Love Berry, Delightful Strawberries, Oasis brands, Berry Obsession, Berry Licious and Mal’s Black Label have made it onto the list of needled suppliers.  There have been possible copycat initiates doing the rounds. “This,” exclaimed Strawberries Australia Inc. Queensland spokesman Ray Daniels, “is food terrorism that is bringing an industry to its knees.”

The game of food contamination, infection or, as Daniels deems it, food terrorism is the sort of thing that multiplies in fear and emotion.  It targets the industry itself (the strawberry market is already frail before the effects of pest and blight) and ensures maximum publicity for the perpetrator.  Then there is the constant fear of a potential victim, the all stifling terror of legal action that might find a target in the form of a provider. Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt has already boosted such feelings, ordering the Food Standards Australia New Zealand to investigate the matter.  “This is a vicious crime, it’s designed to injure, and possibly worse, members of the population at large.”

Out of 800,000 punnets of strawberries, notes Daniels, seven needles were found. “You’ve got more chance of winning lotto than being affected.” Take your chance, and, as with all food production, hope for the best as you would hope for the arrival of a green goddess.

Others such as Anthony Kachenko of Hort Innovation Australia have also moved into a mode of reassurance, a salutary reminder that Australia remains in the stratosphere of food excellence despite such adventurous despoilers.  Sabotage it might be, but it was surely isolated, a nonsense that could be dealt with surgical accuracy. “Australia prides itself on safe, healthy, nutritious produce and we have the utmost confidence in the produce that we grow both for the domestic and the export markets.”

Such attitudes mask the fundamental bet that has characterised human existence since these unfortunate bipeds decided to experiment with the cooked and uncooked.  History shows that wells have been poisoned and fields salted. The divorce from hunter-gatherer to industrialist consumer oblivious to the origins of food made that matter even more poignant, and, in some cases, tragic.  The consumer is at the mercy of the production line, and everything else that finds its way into it.

The food science fraternity are being drawn out to explain the meddling, pitching for greater funding, and another spike in industry funds.  “The things we’re usually concerned about,” suggests Kim Phan-Thien of the University of Sydney, “are the accidental contaminants; spray drift or microbial contamination [which is] a natural risk in the production system.”  What was needed, claimed the good food science pundit, was an examination, not merely of “unintentional adulteration and contaminants but the intentional adulteration for economic gain or a malicious reason for a form of terrorism.”

Take a punt (or in this case, a punnet), and hope that source, process and final destination are somehow safe.  The cautionary note here is to simply cut the suspect fruit to ensure no errant needles or pins have found their way into them.  (This presumes the needle suspect was probably hygienic.)

But the strawberry nightmare highlights the insecurity within the food industry, the permanent vulnerability that afflicts a multi-process set of transactions, recipients and consumers.  Purchasing anything off the stands, and in any aisle of a supermarket is never a guarantee of safety, a leap of faith based upon a coma inflicted by industrial complacence. We are left at the mercy of speculative fancy: the item we take home is what it supposedly is, irrespective of labelling, accurate or otherwise.

The scare, as it is now being termed, has had the sort of impact any fearful threat to health and safety does: an increased focus on security, a boost in food surveillance and the gurus versed in the business of providing machinery.  Strawberry Growers Association of Western Australia President Neil Handasyde revealed that growers were being pressed for increased scanning in the form of metal detectors.  “As an industry, we are sure that [the needles] are not coming from the farm, but we’re about trying to get confidence into customers that when they buy a punnet of strawberries, that there isn’t going to be anything other than strawberries in there and they’re safe to eat.”

Possibly guilty parties have been distancing themselves with feverish necessity.  This, as much as anything else, reeks of the legal advice necessary to avoid paying for any injury that might result.  Mal’s Black Label strawberries, one of the growing number of needle recipients, has taken the line that the farm is above suspicion, with the suspects to be found elsewhere.  Strawberry grower Tony Holl suggested that some figure was floating around, needle and all, intent on fulfilling the wishes of “a real vendetta”.

A reward of $100,000 has been offered by the Queensland government for capturing the villain in question, if, indeed, there is a conscious, all-rounded creature doing the rounds.  He, she, or it, has now assumed various titles from the Queensland authorities. The “strawberry spiker” or “strawberry saboteur” seem less like life-threatening agents than lifestyle names intent on an encyclopaedic entry.  But biosecurity, and matters of food health, are matters that throb and pulsate in Australia. Authorities are promising to find the culprit. The culprit may have other designs.


7 comments

  1. kerri

    Greg Hunt is wrong. (Again) the actions are not intended to hurt consumers.
    The aim is the strawberry market. Hunt is feeding into the fear and terrorism by conflating the issue as something the public needs the government to protect them from. More political mileage so voters will remember at the ballot box.
    Sadly for the strawberry growers, the government in it’s greed to claim victory over public danger, has thrown the industry under the bus. As usual. A more measured approach using common sense and warnings plus suggested means of avoiding the needles whilst still going about your daily life, Enjoying strawberries, is beyond the comprehension of this catastrophising government and especially this incompetant minister.
    It is the government who are also acting as terrorists in their belief that making us all scared whilst patting our hands with false platitudes that ONLY they can keep us safe.

  2. New England Cocky

    Then there was the case of the NZ Chief Plant Pathologist who attended a conference in Melbourne at the time of political “discussions” about the entry of NZ apples into the Australian market as demanded by the World Trade Organisation decision.

    The NZCPP “just happened” to “discover” the much feared Apple Blight fungus had infected one apple tree in the Melbourne Botanic Gardens, and so postulated that it appeared likely that the entire national crop of the apple industry was threatened.

    A retired Australian plant pathologist brought this matter to the attention of the ABC Rural programme by suggesting that the NZCPP himself had infected the apple tree in the Botanic Gardens because natural wind-borne infection from the NZ islands was meteorologically impossible.

    In these latitudes, wind direction is west to east so any infection would occur in South America before Australia.

    Victoria DPI correctly conducted the necessary Shaw Sanitation procedures of felling every apple tree within 2km of the infection site, not that many trees in metropolitan city Melbourne.

    When confronted with this information the NZCPP admitted liability and the matter was quietly dropped.

    But now NZ apples bound for Australia markets have to undergo “expensive” sanitation treatments to be permitted to enter Australia.

    The Minister of Agriculture was not interested in this matter that sounds very like biological warfare.

  3. Vikingduk

    Locally, so far, one farmer has poisoned 500,000 plants . . . ” not worth the hassle “, he says.

    Another has been told by the supermarkets that he needs a $30,000 scanner before they will by his fruit. As he says, he can’t control what happens beyond the farm gate.

    With, it seems, so many copycats, what chance of an unseen contaminant being introduced?

    The consequences of these actions will devastate many growers and workers, etc.

  4. wam

    Remember the horror in the eyes of the cow who watched the slaughter of her neighbour and the suspension of live exports? Remember the lnp outcry? Remember the industry squeals?
    Millions of strawberries for how many needles?
    The government and morning show autocue journalists love a disaster.
    Colworths provided one(I bet they will claim insurance for their loss.)
    The disasters of man made drought and danger continue for farmer and growers continues.and everyone knows it would be worse under labor.

  5. Terry

    Food terrorism or revenge-ism? If the outcome is the same then is it a case of a rose by any other name? Nutters and copy-cat nutters, what set them on their destructive paths? And what responsibility does the media have? Why is it that msm nearly always lead news hour with the negative? Is showing what’s going right in society anathema? Perhaps some media outlet could experiment with the idea of promoting positive stories (leading edge science, medicine, environment, education related-progress) for a few months and gauge audience interest. Society operates on trust. I prefer fresh food over tinned. If msm continues to feed the lower nature of the collective with tales of woe, dysfunction and political intrigue then guess what?

  6. helvityni

    Advance Australia Fair,
    Fair dinkum,
    Fair crack of the whip,

    Where is the fairness of ‘needling’ of poor innocent strawberries,
    What about hardworking Strawberry growers ?

  7. Josephus

    Why the hysteria? People just need to cut up their strawberries, as I do. Panic and stupidity , like millenial fears.

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