Australian PM threatens strawberry saboteurs with 15 years in jail

Scott Morrison announces new penalties amid fruit scare blamed mostly on copycat hoaxers

 Strawberry punnets in a supermarket in Sydney, Australia. Photograph: Erik Anderson/EPA

Strawberry punnets in a supermarket in Sydney, Australia. Photograph: Erik Anderson/EPA

 

The Australian government will introduce new penalties for food contamination in the wake of the strawberry contamination scare, which ministers and police believe is being driven by copycat hoaxers.

Prime minister Scott Morrison announced on Wednesday that his government would increase the maximum penalty, from 10 years in prison to 15 years, for people found guilty under existing provisions.

A new offence of “recklessness” would be introduced to make it easier to prosecute individuals found guilty of food contamination, with a 10-year maximum, and the definition of “sabotage” would be amended in the espionage and foreign interference bill to include goods intended for human consumption.

Authorities are struggling to contain the scare, with the home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, confirming there have now been more than 100 reports of fruit being contaminated.

Mr Dutton held a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra on Wednesday to update the public about authorities’ attempts to comes to grips with the problem.

The food contamination scare has now spread to every state in Australia, causing supermarkets to recall brands and farmers to dump fruit. A $100,000 (€62,000) reward has already been offered for information on the Queensland strawberry saboteur amid fears six brands across four states have been targeted with needle insertion. Australian farmers produce about 800,000 punnets of strawberries a day in an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

But Mr Dutton said he believed many of the 100 separate reports were hoaxes or copycats, and he was angry about the diversion of police resources to the matter. He asked Australians who were posting hoax reports on social media to take them down, because police needed to spend time finding the “true culprits”.

New laws

A 62-year-old woman has already been caught putting a needle into a banana in Mackay, central Queensland , in what is believed to have been a copycat act.

Mr Morrison said on Wednesday that new laws were required to punish the people contaminating food.

“Any idiot who thinks they can go out into a shopping centre and start sticking pins in fruit and thinks this is some sort of lark or put something on Facebook which is a hoax, that sort of behaviour is reckless and under the provision that we’ll be seeking to introduce swiftly that type of behaviour would carry a penalty of up to 10 years in prison,” Mr Morrison said on Wednesday.

“It’s not a joke. It’s not funny. You’re putting the livelihoods of hard-working Australians at risk and you’re scaring children. If you do that sort of thing in this country, we will come after you and we will throw the book at you.”

Mr Morrison urged parliament to pass the measures before the end of Thursday, which could also help to reassure overseas consumers that Australia was taking action to preserve reputation for reliable food produce.

“I expect nobody goes home until that’s done,” he said. “Because anyone who is thinking of engaging in this copycat behaviour should know, there should be signs up in every single grocery store or wherever you buy your strawberries ... you do that, you face jail, and they should be very clear about those warnings and I want that to be law by the time we rise from this parliament at the end of tomorrow.”

The attorney general, Christian Porter, said penalties already existed relating to the contamination of goods, including food.

There were general offences of contaminating food or other goods with the intention of causing public alarm, or anxiety, or significant economic loss, or the intention to cause harm to public health, which carry a maximum penalty of 10 years.

Sabotage

The government plans to increase the maximum penalty to 15 years for all four of those offences and introduce four new additional offences, with the mental element lowered to “recklessness” rather than “intention”.

The sabotage clause of the espionage and foreign interference bill will be amended to include goods intended for human consumption where it is prejudicial to national security, Mr Porter said.

“The simple point here is that on a larger scale, sabotage has been recently conceived to include sabotage of infrastructure that allows for the provision of electricity or water to Australian citizens, because they are essential to our citizens wellbeing and therefore our national security,” he said. “It is unprecedented behaviour that highlights how food supply chains can potentially be just as important to Australians’ wellbeing.” – Guardian