Strawberries spook Australia into raising jail terms for food tampering

Empty shelves, normally stocked with strawberry punnets, are seen at a Coles Supermarket in Brisbane, Australia, September 14, 2018. AAP/Dan Peled/via REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia on Thursday increased the jail term to 15 years for anyone convicted of contaminating foodstuffs as a scare over needles found in strawberries and other fruits gripped the country.

Police are investigating more than 100 reports of sewing needles found in strawberries, which have forced farmers to dump fruit as demand plummets, and cast a shadow over an industry worth A$160 million ($116 million).

Australia’s parliament passed legislation on Thursday to increase the maximum prison term to 15 years from 10 years for anyone convicted of tampering with food, in line with offences such as financing terrorism.

It also criminalized hoax claims, making them punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

“That’s how seriously I take this,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Royalla, a rural town 35 km (21 miles) south of the capital Canberra.

The legislation was rushed through in less than day as lawmakers try to repair public trust in the strawberry industry.

Politicians across the political divide spent much of the day promoting the industry, with Morrison promising to eat a dessert made with strawberries.

Strawberry farmers have welcomed the action, saying they faced financial ruin if demand did not recover quickly.

Consumers remained wary, forcing retailers in Australia and New Zealand to pull strawberries from store shelves.

Australia supermarket giant Woolworths said on Thursday it had also withdrawn sewing needles from its shelves nationally.

“We’ve taken the precautionary step of temporarily removing sewing needles from sale in our stores. The safety of our customers is our top priority,” a Woolworths spokeswoman said in an emailed statement.