Australia strawberry needles scare widens as federal probe is launched

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The Australian government has ordered a federal investigation into the contamination of strawberries with needles and pins, as concern spread across the country.

Greg Hunt, the Australian health secretary, directed Food Standards Australia and New Zealand to investigate after people in the state of Queensland reported finding sewing needles in their fruit last week.

Needles were also found in fruit sold in other Australian states. Authorities say they don’t know whether the later cases were connected, or whether they were copycats. At least six brands of strawberries have been affected.

One big retailer in New Zealand said it would halt the sale of Australian strawberries in the wake of the scare.

“It’s now beginning to look as if this is much broader than had initially been presumed,” Hunt told the ABC network.

He said the investigation by the food standards agency would provide reassurance. “This a vicious crime, it’s designed to injure, and possibly worse, members of the population at large,” he added in remarks quoted by ABC.

The government of Queensland has offered a reward of 100,000 Australian dollars (about $71,510) for information leading to the arrest and conviction of anyone responsible for the contamination.

“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,” Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said in a statement.

“I would urge anyone with information that may be relevant to this incident in any way to contact police as soon as possible,” she said.

A spokesman for the Australian retail conglomerate Woolworths Group said its New Zealand supermaket chain Countdown would not place new orders with Australian growers. “We will transition to locally grown strawberries in a few days as the local season starts,” he said.

The Queensland Health Department advised consumers to cut up strawberries before eating them. Queensland Police have also launched an investigation.

The health department said strawberries under three brands had been recalled: Berry Obsession, Berry Licious and Donnybrook Berries.

New South Wales police said the Love Berry, Delightful Strawberries and Oasis brands may also have been contaminated.

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