Needles Hidden in Strawberries Could Be Work of Vicious Saboteurs, Officials Say

Australian officials have launched an investigation after needles were found hidden in strawberries across the country, injuring at least one person.

Needles have been disovered inside fruit in six states and territories. Several brands have been recalled due to fears over customers' safety, while two large grocery stores in New Zealand have temporarily stopped selling Australian strawberries, the BBC reported.

Health Minister Greg Hunt has now ordered an investigation by the Food Safety Authority of Australia and New Zealand. He called the suspected sabotage "a very vicious crime" and a "general attack on the public." The injured man was hospitalized and treated for severe abdominal pains after eating a strawberry.

The first damaged fruits were reported the northwestern state of Queensland last week. They subsequently spread to Queensland, Victoria, Tasmania, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. Police have suggested some of the newer cases may be copycat crimes.

No suspects have yet been identified, though the Queensland government is offering a $72,000 reward for any information that might help catch the culprit or culprits, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.

The state's Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk asked Saturday, "How could any right-minded person want to put a baby or a child or anybody's health at risk by doing such a dreadful act?" One 9-year-old reportedly bit into an affected strawberry, but noticed the needle before swallowing.

Police have refused to speculate on how the needles ended up in the fruits, though the Queensland Strawberry Growers' Association suggested they were the work of a "disgruntled employee."

According to ABC News, at least seven brands—Berry Obsession, Berry Licious, Love Berry, Donnybrook Berries, Delightful Strawberries, Oasis and Mal's Black Label—have been affected thus far. With the industry worth around $93 million each year, growers are concerned the needles will impact sales. Already, New Zealand's Countdown and Foodstuffs grocers—two of the largest in the country—froze all imports of Australian strawberries.

Palaszczuk told reporters, "Whoever is behind this is not just putting families at risk across Queensland and the rest of Australia—they are putting an entire industry at risk."

Brenton Sherry, a strawberry farmer from Kupito in South Australia, told ABC News he believes the sabotage was happening at the very end of the chain in the supermarkets themselves. "You cannot have six to eight labels that have been doctored—that means there are five or six packing houses in Queensland [involved], it can't be happening there, it has to be happening somewhere else," he argued. He suggested that the only solution was for supermarkets "to have metal detectors at point of sale."

In the meantime, Australian health officials have suggested customers cut their fruit up before eating to avoid any needles hidden inside. Police have also asked anyone who finds a contaminated punnet to take the batch to a local police station.