'Cowards, Idiots, Grubs': Scott Morrison Announces Tougher Penalties For Fruit Saboteurs
There are now over 100 reported cases of needles in fruit, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said.
The widening "strawberry sabotage" saga has prompted the government to demand tougher penalties for possible offenders, who could face more time behind bars.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Wednesday announced the maximum penalty for those found guilty of food contamination will be lifted from ten to 15 years. A new offence for those who "recklessly" tamper with fruit, including by carrying out hoaxes, will hold a similar jail time.
"It's not a joke, it's not funny," Morrison said.
"You're putting the livelihoods of Australians at risk and you're scaring children."
There have been over 100 cases of contaminated fruit reported, Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said on Wednesday, as a Queensland Police-led investigation involving the Australian Federal Police and the Australian Border Force works to find the "true culprits".
Sewing needles have been found in strawberries across several Australian states, prompting a mass recall of the product and a tightening of the country's export laws. Metal found in a banana in Queensland was dismissed as an isolated mental health incident, while the saga this week stretched to a third product, after a mother in Sydney's west claimed she had found a needle embedded in an apple.
The home affairs minister said a lot of those reported cases are believed to be hoaxes or copycat events, with the new offence set to extend to people making false reports or jokes on social media.
"It's a diversion of policing resources when we want to find the true culprits. We don't want policing resources being distracted and diverted by posters being put up by people who might think they are funny," Dutton said.
The Prime Minister described those engaging in such "shocking" behaviour as "cowards" and "grubs".
"If you do that sort of thing in this country, we will come after you and we will throw a book at you," he said.
Attorney General Christian Porter stressed the new laws would not be applied retrospectively to those responsible for the original crime.
"The reason we are doing this so quickly is that we do think there is a need to strengthen and improve the law and this sends a massive deterrent to anyone out there that would further cripple this industry," he said.
The new laws will be drafted on Wednesday with an intent to pass them through Parliament this week.
'Please support our farmers'
Both the Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister echoed an urgent plea to continue supporting the country's farmers.
"I'm having strawberries for lunch today, I cut them up this morning in Canberra," Dutton said.
"Our message to the community is don't disrupt your consumption pattern, just make sure you take the appropriate cautionary, common sense approach.
"That's going to support the farmers and send a very clear message that this sort of activity is not going to cause the destruction intended."
Anyone with relevant information is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000.