This photo illustration shows a strawberry on a fork at a restaurant in Sydney on September 19, 2018. - The tainting of supermarket strawberries with sewing needles is comparable to "terrorism", Australia's prime minister said, as he demanded tougher sentencing in response to a nationwide scare. (Photo by Saeed KHAN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
SAEED KHAN/AFP/AFP/Getty Images
This photo illustration shows a strawberry on a fork at a restaurant in Sydney on September 19, 2018. - The tainting of supermarket strawberries with sewing needles is comparable to "terrorism", Australia's prime minister said, as he demanded tougher sentencing in response to a nationwide scare. (Photo by Saeed KHAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images)
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Panic over needles found in strawberries in Australia has provoked fury from politicians and fears for the country’s multi-million dollar fruit industry.

At least 100 reported cases of needles in fruit have been reported across the country, though many are thought to be “hoaxes or copycat events,” according to the government.

Concern that local farmers will suffer as a result of the needle scare as consumers turn away from the popular fruit has prompted a viral, grassroots social media campaign urging Australians to #SmashAStrawb to support local growers.

“Smash” is an Australianism which means to eat or drink something enthusiastically or quickly.

“Western Australians, get behind our local industry. Slice them in half and #SmashAStrawb to help out our local growers today,” Western Australian Premier Mark McGowan said on his official Twitter.

Following the needle controversy, the Australian government has announced tougher penalties for food tampering, increasing the maximum prison term from 10 to 15 years.

By comparison, knowingly possessing child pornography and indecent assault both carry a maximum prison sentence of 10 years in the state of Victoria, Australia’s most densely populated state.

“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. You’re a coward and you’re a grub and if you do that sort of thing in this country we will come after you,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Wednesday.

Empty shelves, normally stocked with strawberry punnets, are seen at a Coles Supermarket in Brisbane on September 14.
Dan Peled/AP
Empty shelves, normally stocked with strawberry punnets, are seen at a Coles Supermarket in Brisbane on September 14.

Metal detectors used on exports

Sewing needles and pins have been found in strawberries in all six Australian states, in at least six different brands. There are also isolated cases of metal found in a banana, and a needle found in an apple.

From Wednesday, all international exports of fresh strawberries will be scanned by metal detectors or x-ray machines, the Australian Department of Agriculture announced, as part of a range of measures to restore confidence.

“Visual inspection alone is not an acceptable measure,” the statement said.

Supermarkets across Australia removed large numbers of strawberries from their shelves in response to the scare but the effect has also been felt internationally.

Australia exports strawberries to Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the UAE, among others. One big retailer in New Zealand has already withdrawn Australian strawberries from sale.

Some buyers in Russia and the UK have also blocked Australian imports, said Jennifer Rowlings from Queensland Strawberry, according to local media.

Dozens of Australian politicians and social media users joined in the #SmashAStrawb, posting images of themselves eating strawberries, cutting them up or even providing their favorite strawberry-based recipes.

Among the recipes flooding social media was a politician’s secret family recipe for strawberry jam, a range of milkshakes and smoothies as well as many cakes and slices.

“Cut ‘em up. Don’t cut ‘em out,” a campaign by the Nationals political party said on their social media.

Strict prison terms

Despite the public support, representatives for the Australian strawberry industry told CNN they were concerned about the impact on the country’s farmers.

In Queensland alone, there are 150 different strawberry growers who produce up to 15,000 tonnes of the fruit a season. In total, the state’s strawberry industry is estimated to be worth up to $160 million.

Speaking to CNN, a representative from Strawberries Australia in New South Wales said the crisis was a “catastrophe for Queensland farmers,” who are producing the majority of the country’s fruit.

To warn off any further food tampering, Prime Minister Morrison announced on Wednesday the penalty for food tampering would be increased, while also promising additional funding for food inspectors.

“We’ll put these deterrents in place but we need to encourage calm … Just go back to buying strawberries like you used to and take precautions as you should,” he said.

Law enforcement has been quick to react to the health scare. According to Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, a team of 100 police in her state have been tasked with finding the culprits.

In addition, both the West Australian and Queensland governments said it was offering a $100,000 reward for information which leads to the arrest of those contaminating strawberries.

But it was Prime Minister Morrison who had practical advice for Australians across the country. “Make a pavlova this weekend and put strawberries on it,” Morrison said Wednesday.