SYDNEY - Australia is warning culprits in a worsening fruit contamination crisis they could face 15-year jail terms. Police are investigating dozens of reports of sewing needles being found in containers of strawberries across the country. Many are thought to be copycat acts of sabotage.
"Parasites" and "cowards" is what government ministers are calling those responsible for contaminating fruit across Australia.
The police are investigating more than 100 reports of shoppers finding needles concealed within strawberries and other fruits.
The perpetrators could face prison terms of up to 15-years — a penalty similar to crimes such as child pornography and financing terrorism.
"Obviously we mean this to have the maximum deterrent affect possible and we do not resile from the fact that it is a very strong response and it has been a strong response delivered very swiftly this week. But it is precisely what is needed to draw a line under this conduct and stop it from having another week of damage done to our fruit growers and to our farmers," said Australia's Attorney General Christian Porter.
Fruit producers say their industry has been hit by commercial terrorism, but some farmers say there has been a hysterical overreaction to the scandal.
Grower Angelo Demosi said a calm approach to restore confidence is needed.
"It is important that we take the foot forward to ensure that wholesalers and growers can assure consumers that the product is safe," said Demosi.
Australian strawberries being exported overseas now have to pass through metal detectors.
Melissa Fitzgerald, a food science expert at the University of Queensland, said tamper-proof containers are another option.
"It is possible that packaging technology will be brought on board so that people cannot open the strawberries or open the fruit and put something like a needle in it," said Fitzgerald.
As the hunt for the saboteurs continues, Australian authorities are offering large rewards to help catch them.