Strawberry crisis: PM to increase jail term for food tampering to 15 years

Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced urgent and harsh new criminal penalties for contaminating food as the ongoing strawberry needle crisis brings Australian farmers to their knees.

Prime minister Scott Morrison has asked the attorney-general to consider raising the penalty for the crime of food contamination from 10 to 15 years, in a move designed to deter further tampering with fresh fruits. 

Mr Morrison said it was important to send a "very clear message" to would-be offenders as police work to track down those behind the recent spate of strawberry contamination, with sewing needles hidden in the fruit. 

"Someone who has an offence for forgery or theft of Commonwealth property, they currently get 10 years. That's what you get 10 years for. What you get 15 years for is things like possessing child pornography and financing terrorism." 

"That's how seriously our government takes it," he told reporters at Parliament House. 

The government will also create a second set of food contamination laws that match the existing offences but with a lower requirement for the mental state of the offender. 

The new crimes will only require that the person was "reckless", rather than needing to prove an intention to cause damage. 

Those laws would be more likely to capture copycat cases, attorney-general Christian Porter said. 

The government will also expand the definition of the crime of "sabotage" - usually referring to sabotage of key national infrastructure - to include the sabotage of food for human consumption. 

The sabotage offence will apply to large-scale tampering that endangers "national security" and follows the government's recent changes to the offence to capture cyberattacks on systems like power grids. 

The federal government has also announced $1 million in funding to help strawberry growers through the crisis, matching a commitment from the Queensland state government. 


Federal Minister for Regional Services Bridget McKenzie made the announcement on Wednesday morning.

"We are announcing $1 million to assist in this issue around the food safety contamination of strawberries," she said.

"We are wanting to see more food safety officials on the ground to work with our state and territory counterparts to make sure when they request a recall, that we fast-track that and that we're absolutely investing in increased methods of detection."

On Wednesday, ten cases of needle contaminations in strawberries are being investigated by Western Australia Police, as the national crisis escalates.

The number was confirmed on Wednesday, with five new cases reported to police since Tuesday in the suburbs of Bicton, Darlington, Hocking, Morley, and Rossmoyne.

The WA government is also offering a $100,000 reward.

A Queensland man found this needle in his strawberry.
Source: Facebook

Some trade partners in Russia and the UK have already blocked Australian imports, while New Zealand supermarket chains have announced they would pull Australian-grown berries from their shelves.

The Queensland government also pledged $1 million to support the industry and to investigate gaps in the supply chain.

Copycats who have devastated Queensland's strawberry industry by hiding needles inside fruit are worse than those behind the initial crime, Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk says.

More than 100 police including 60 detectives are now investigating the sabotage and the state government has offered a $100,000 reward leading to the arrest of those involved.

"What isn't helpful is the number of copycat and fake reports making an already difficult situation worse," Ms Palaszczuk told Parliament on Wednesday.

"This is something with which the growers have expressed their anger and frustration and I couldn't agree more."

"The people copying this crime are in many ways worse than those who started it."

What started out as a health issue impacting two Sunshine Coast suppliers has spread to an entire industry with farmers now forced to stand down staff and dump their produce by the truckload.

strawberry_crisis_still.jpg
Source: SBS News

NSW police are investigating at least 20 cases of needles being found in fruit including claims of needles being found in an apple and a banana.

Perpetrators, including copycats and consumers falsely claiming a discovery, could face up to 10 years in jail for food contamination.

In Victoria, the opposition has called for bipartisan support to create a new offence for deliberately contaminating food with a mandatory three-year prison sentence.

No one has been charged in relation to the tampering.

    

Horticulture body Growcom has implored consumers to keep buying strawberries.

"Hang in there with us and our saying will be 'cut it up, don't cut us out'," Growcom chief executive David Thomson said.

Former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce said the culprits must be "pursued and hunted down".

"It is not only a threat to the strawberry industry, it is a threat across the food production industry. We have got to treat it as such," he told the Nine Network.

The scare is expected to result in a review of fruit handling, storage and packaging following the police investigations, Mr Thomson said.

From 9am on Wednesday all fresh strawberries being exported from Australia must be metal-contaminant free.

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources announced the interim control measure on Tuesday evening in response to the growing situation.

"These measures apply to fresh strawberry exports to all markets, and will remain in place until the risk of metal contaminants has been appropriately managed."



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Published 19 September 2018 at 12:24pm, updated 19 September 2018 at 2:31pm
By James Elton-Pym