Fruit grower associations in the Australian state of Queensland have applauded police for arresting and charging a suspect in the strawberry tampering scandal, but concerns have been raised about how copycat acts and social media exacerbated the problem.
50-year-old My Ut Trinh, a former picking supervisor at Berry Licious, faced the Brisbane Magistrates Court on Monday charged with seven counts of contamination.
The charges were laid following a two-month investigation that included the alleged detection of Trinh’s DNA in a punnet of contaminated strawberries in Victoria.
It is alleged the former refugee acted “in spite” over misgivings about her treatment at the company.
But the contaminated punnets in question only represent a small portion of the 231 reports of alleged tampering received by police, involving 68 different strawberry brands of which 49 were in Queensland.
In his response to the development, Growcom CEO David Thomson did not mention the name of the suspect but highlighted bad public behavior was a challenge beyond the control of growers.
“Growcom in association with Queensland Strawberries are pleased to be advised police have arrested and charged someone with the original act of product sabotage regarding the needles in strawberries incident,” Thomson said.
“We congratulate Queensland Police for their efforts and hope this person will be brought to account to the full extent of the law.
“It is disconcerting that the charges relate to just six or seven punnets of strawberries, proving that the majority of the 200+ incidents were copycats or false reports.”
He said it was a shame the crisis had been largely driven by social media, which had a “crippling” impact on the state’s strawberry growers and to some extent fruit growers and exporters across the country.
“People who make claims of tampering online instead of contacting authorities should always be questioned,” he said.
“Those who make claims that are false, attention-seeking or attempting to gain financial advantage should face criminal charges.
“Australia has strict agricultural standards to ensure the safety and wholesomeness of our fresh produce. Our primary industry bodies and agricultural authorities vigorously and vigilantly defend those standards.”
He said all state governments and industries were undertaking an intensive review of the events and behaviors that caused and exacerbated food tampering incidents.
“On behalf of our growers, Growcom is appreciative to Queensland customers who recognised there was no substantial issue with strawberries and continued to buy the fruit as usual,” said the executive.
“We will continue to work with industry to address issues throughout the supply chain to ensure an incident like this will not again bring an industry to its knees.”
Trinh’s lawyer reportedly withdrew an application for bail over retribution concerns if she were to be released, and she is expected to face court again later this month.