While it has been three years since the needles in the strawberries panic, the whole incident leaves a bad taste.
Three years ago this month Australia was gripped by terror as our nation’s proud berry industry reported that its strawberries were now unexpectedly rich in iron – or, at least, stainless steel.
It all began in September 2018 when Joshua Gane posted that his friend had just swallowed half a sewing needle found in a strawberry and was now in Emergency with abdominal pains. Three more needles were reported as having turned up in fruit as panicked Australians searched their berries, prompting a nationwide recall and 240 copycat incidents because people are sometimes just the very, very worst.
The effect on the industry was devastating as every mainland state recalled strawberries under the assumption that this was part of an extortion attempt. An estimated $160 million in crops were destroyed for safety reasons.
Strawberry Fightback: New laws to tackle food contamination will be introduced to Parliament today. @ScottMorrisonMP told @sunriseon7 he has the support to pass tough new laws that increase penalties for those who sabotage fruit. #Strawberries #7News pic.twitter.com/gNRSP5m4PH
— 7NEWS Central Queensland (@7NewsCQ) September 19, 2018
Following the national scare 51-year-old My Ut Trinh, a worker at the Berrylicious strawberry plant in Cabooluture, was charged with seven counts of contamination of goods with the intention to cause economic loss, with the prosecution suggesting she had an ongoing dispute with her employer over her treatment in the workplace.
She was initially refused bail for several months, with the official word being that she was being “uncooperative” – although it’s worth noting that she also didn’t speak English with high proficiency, raising the suggestion that what was interpreted as refusal was actually confusion.
In July 2021, two days into the long-delayed trial in the Brisbane District Court, all charges were dropped.
It was reported that DNA evidence connecting Tran to the needles had been revealed. It wasn’t until November that she was granted bail and then the story pretty much vanished from the public consciousness. Strawberries remained safe and needle-free and Australia’s trust in our national fruit integrity gradually returned. Which is good, because strawberries are marvellously rich in vitamin C, and are also very delicious.
— 7NEWS Melbourne (@7NewsMelbourne) September 27, 2018
The story has an actual conclusion, although you’d be forgiven for having missed it: in July 2021, two days into the long-delayed trial in the Brisbane District Court, My Ut Trinh had all charges dropped and was free to go.
The decision was prompted by the prosecution announcing they were unlikely to secure a conviction and questions over evidence connecting the accused with the needles.
“Thank you. I don’t know how to talk,” she explained to the media after the trial. “I no talk but I work my job nearly 20 years, I eat fruit every day,” she said. “I no work for almost three years.”
And it’s an unsatisfying end to one of the country’s biggest food scares. Either a would-be terrorist walked away scot free, or a migrant worker with limited English spent almost years unemployed and persecuted without cause. Either outcome is discomfiting.
However, in a way, it’s actually kind of quaint to be reminded that a public health scare with three reported instances led to a major national response while the largest COVID outbreak and death toll in the country is followed with talk of how soon we can get the pubs back open.