Consumers were urged to throw out the affected strawberry punnets after needles were found. (Facebook: Joshua Gane )
The Queensland Government’s food safety response to strawberries that were contaminated with needles and sold to customers was not appropriate, a food safety expert says.
Queensland police are investigating the entire supply chain of Berry Licious and Berry Obsession strawberries after the fourth confirmed case of a sewing needle found embedded in strawberries from central Queensland.
Authorities have warned consumers to dispose of or return punnets from the two brands, which were sold in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria, but only a “trade recall” was issued.
Consumers should dispose or return Berry Licious and Berry Obsession punnets. (Supplied: Queensland Strawberry Growers Association)
According to Queensland Health, a trade recall recovers food that has not been sold directly to consumers and involves recovering the product from distribution centres and wholesalers.
A consumer recall is the most extensive type, recovering the food from all points in the production and distribution chain, including from consumers.
Professor Melissa Fitzgerald from the University of Queensland said she was “surprised” there had not been a consumer recall issued, given the product had been sold to customers.
“A trade level recall means the products are recovered from distribution centres and wholesalers and Woolworths are certainly not a wholesaler,” she said.
“So I think it would have been much more appropriate to go the consumer level recall.”
She said she would have also expected to see a warning on official consumer and supermarket websites.
The strawberries do not appear on the Woolworths product recalls page.
“I would expect people to go to the websites for information and I wouldn’t have thought they would know the difference between a consumer level recall and trade level,” she said.
“People may be quite surprised not to find any information on the websites where they normally would.”
There is currently no information on the Woolworths, Australian Food Standards or ACCC websites about the strawberries, because they are not required to provide it under trade recall requirements.
Public warning ‘did not seem quick enough’
Strawberry tampering timeline
Sunday, September 9
- Hoani Hearne eats a contaminated strawberry bought from a Woolworths north of Brisbane
- Mr Hearne is admitted to emergency with severe abdominal pain
- Queensland Health begins its investigation
Monday, September 10
- Queensland Health tries to visit Mr Hearne, but he wasn’t home
Tuesday, September 11
- Mr Hearne hands over evidence to Queensland Health
- Angela Stevenson finds a needle in strawberries from Woolworths in Gladstone
Wednesday, September 12
- Berry Obsession and Berry Licious withdrawn from Woolworths stores
- Police and Queensland Health issue a trade recall of affected brands
Thursday, September 13
- Queensland Health informed of Ms Stevenson’s case
- No information is listed on Woolworths’ recall page about strawberries
Friday, September 14
- Three more punnets found contaminated with needles
- Donnybrook farms strawberries are pulled from supermarket shelves
Hoani Hearne, who was the first victim of the strawberry tampering, said he reported the issue to Woolworths on Sunday, while the second Queensland victim, Angela Stevenson, said she emailed and called Woolworths on Tuesday when her son had bitten into a contaminated strawberry.
The products were not withdrawn from sale until Wednesday.
By law, companies are required to immediately report any suspected cases of contamination by phoning a 24-hour hotline.
Woolworths has not responded to any questions about when it received complaints or notified authorities.
Professor Fitzgerald said the period between the first incident on Sunday and the public warning on Wednesday did not seem quick enough and is now urging authorities to increase the level to a consumer recall.
“In the media, we are hearing the strawberries have been cleared from the shelves, but we haven’t seen the normal publications through the normal channels of consumer level recalls,” she said.
“There is a risk to health, and because people have swallowed them we usually are preventative rather than reactive. I would have thought needles would have required a preventative recall.
“At that point when people were aware that strawberries had gone further than the distribution centres I think it should have been a consumer recall.”
Queensland Health satisfied with process
Queensland chief health officer Dr Jeannette Young said because the affected strawberries had a short life they felt it was more important to do a trade level recall so people could no longer buy them.
“We’ve asked the trade to withdraw the product so it’s not available anywhere now … a consumer level recall is when we ask them to find the product in their homes and bring it back to the store, and they can do that if they want,” she said.
Dr Young said she was satisfied with the way the matter was handled, from when the first single case was reported on Sunday.
Professor Fitzgerald said the public warning did not seem to come quickly enough. (Facebook: Angela Stevenson)
“Until we’ve done some investigating and worked with police, it’s hard to know if that’s symptomatic of a broader issue or whether it’s just a single event,” Dr Young said.
“It was only on Wednesday morning when we were told about two separate cases, when we realised we had a broader problem.
“At that stage, Wednesday morning, we had three cases, which is why we then went out [to the media] on Wednesday afternoon.”
Detective Acting Chief Superintendent Terry Lawrence said police first received the advice of the two Victorian cases on Tuesday, and were only notified of the fourth case on Thursday, a day after the first media conference was held.
“We’re comfortable that all the products of Berry Licious and Berry Obsession from those particular dates, that’s been resolved, those products are no longer being sold,” he said.
Police are yet to make any arrests over the tampering of the strawberries, but are urging families to cut up their fruit as a safety precaution, after a copycat case in Gatton, west of Brisbane, on Thursday where a small metal rod was placed inside a punnet of strawberries at a Coles supermarket.
A copycat placed a small metal rod inside a punnet of strawberries at a Coles supermarket. (Supplied)