State rallies behind growers as tough laws come in
QUEENSLAND strawberry growers have received a groundswell of support as supermarket giant Woolworths takes the extraordinary step of removing sewing needles from shelves.
Tough new Federal laws increasing the penalties for deliberately contaminating food were introduced in Parliament yesterday and passed within four hours.
The laws raise the maximum penalty for intentional contamination to 15 years' jail, alongside a new offence for making a false statement about contamination, which could be punished with up to 10 years in prison.
More than 100 cases of needles in fruit have been reported to police nationwide since the contamination was made public last Wednesday, including an allegedly contaminated banana at a Woolworths at Cairns, and a mango sold at a Coles supermarket on the NSW Central Coast, both bought within the past three days.
Queensland Police are continuing to step up their investigation, with more than 100 officers, including 60 detectives, investigating the widening produce sabotage scare.
Woolworths yesterday confirmed all sewing needles were pulled from sale on Wednesday in a bid to stop copycats and pranksters from sabotaging fruit after an onslaught of new cases have popped up around the country.
"We've taken the precautionary step of temporarily removing sewing needles ... the safety of our customers is our top priority," a spokeswoman told The Courier-Mail.
Attorney-General Christian Porter told Parliament the new Federal laws sent a strong and simple message.
"The behaviour we are now witnessing is not a joke. It is not funny. It is a serious criminal offence, and we denounce it, and offenders of it will face very serious consequences," Mr Porter said.
Australians are doing what they can to help Queensland producers get back on their feet.
Taste.com.au recorded a 68 per cent surge in searches for strawberry recipes on Wednesday, compared to the day before, as home cooks look to embrace the fruit, mostly through jams and muffins.
Demand for strawberry recipes had suffered a major downturn in the days after the saga broke.
Brisbane businesses are also doing their bit, with dessert king Max Brenner among the eateries steadfastly keeping strawberries on the menu.
Max Brenner Gasworks branch manager Mel Bloyce said the fruit was a "staple" featuring on half of their dessert menu, along with three of the drinks.
Grassroots community efforts have kicked off around the southeast to encourage locals to keep buying strawberries.
Mark Wilson from Donarity is co-ordinating a "strawberry weekend" on September 29 and 30, helping growers to throw open the farm gates and sell directly to the public, with Queensland producers welcoming the idea.
"People can go out to a farm and spend a few dollars and know it's directly helping the growers. But they don't have to wait until next weekend, they could do it this weekend, many will be open," he said.