A 50-year-old Queensland woman has been charged over the strawberry needle saga that forced supermarkets to pull punnets from shelves and farmers to dump truckloads of strawberries, as well as a spate of copycat incidents involving strawberries and other fruits.
My Ut Trinh worked at the Berrylicious/Berry Obsession farm in southeast Queensland. Trinh, who was supervising other fruit pickers, is believed to have been disgruntled about her treatment at the farm.
Trinh was arrested when DNA was found in a contaminated punnet of strawberries in a Victorian supermarket. She was arrested by police on Nov. 11 and spent a night in the Brisbane Watchhouse before appearing in Brisbane Magistrates Court on Nov. 12.
Trinh was charged with seven counts of contamination of goods, which carries a penalty of up to three years. Police alleged that Trinh had the intention to cause economic loss through her actions, which means Trinh could face a maximum of 10 years in prison.
Prosecutor Cheryl Tesch opposed bail, citing concerns of witness interference and public retribution, broadcaster ABC said.
Trinh’s legal representative withdrew a bail application, the Brisbane Magistrates’ Court told Reuters. She was to remain in custody ahead of her next appearance on Nov. 22.
The Queensland Police Service said that they had conducted a complex multi-jurisdiction investigation that led to the arrest. The first incident of needles in strawberries was reported on Sept. 9.
Police traced the incident to the Berrylicious/Berry Obsession farm in southeast Queensland, which supplied Woolworths and other stores.
Berrylicious/Berry Obsession owner Kevin Tran said that the strawberry incident forced the farm to dump 40 tonnes of picked fruit, costing him about $500,000, according to the Courier Mail.
The incident was followed by scores of copycat cases, which police had warned the public about on Sept. 13. In the following weeks, needles were reportedly being found in strawberries in NSW, Victoria, and South Australia, and later spread to all Australian states and territories.
Farmers across Australia were forced to dump their strawberries by the truckload. Major supermarkets pulled strawberry punnets from their shelves.
On social media, the tag #SmashaStrawb emerged to encourage people to support farmers by continuing to buy strawberries.
— ABC News (@abcnews) September 19, 2018
The Queensland government, in response, announced a $1 million strawberry support package and ran a statewide advertising campaign costing about $600,000 to encourage people to support local farmers by buying their produce.
Another $250,000 of the $1 million package was put towards ensuring there were no more such cases of contamination in the supply chain.
The Queensland Strawberry Growers Association (QSGA) and Growcom were also given some funds to distribute to affected farmers.
The federal government also contributed $1 million to the industry, and announced on Sept. 19 that it would draft new laws to increase the maximum penalty for food tampering from 10 to 15 years.
QSGA said on Nov. 11 that they welcomed news of the arrest, but also hoped that copycat fruit saboteurs would face charges.
“Given the crippling impact on the Queensland strawberry industry, this person should be brought to account to the full extent of the law,” the association’s Jennifer Rowling said, the Courier Mail reported.
“It is disconcerting that the [allegations] relate to only six or seven punnets of strawberries, proving that the majority of the 200-plus incidents were copycats or false reports,” Rowling said.
“It was a crisis driven by social media and the only real victims were the strawberry growers, and to some extent other Australian fruit growers and exporters,” QSGA said in a statement.
Anyone with information is asked to contact Policelink on 131 444 or provide information using the online form 24hrs per day.
You can report information about crime anonymously to Crime Stoppers, a registered charity and community volunteer organisation, by calling 1800 333 000 or via crimestoppersqld.com.au 24 hrs per day.