A farm supervisor who allegedly put needles in strawberries did so out of spite, a Brisbane court has heard.
- The 50-year-old has been charged with seven counts of contaminating goods
- The charges are understood to relate to one of the original cases
- Strawberry growers say the impact of the contamination scare “crippled” the industry
- My Ut Trinh, 50, will remain in custody after her lawyer withdrew an application for bail in the Brisbane Magistrates Court.
She was arrested in Brisbane on Sunday, two months after Queensland Police fronted the media to warn about punnets being contaminated with needles.
Ms Trinh worked as a supervisor at the Berry Licious farm, but her lawyer said she did not work picking strawberries or in the packing sheds.
The court heard the woman was allegedly acting out of spite and that it was an act of sabotage.
“The case that is put is that it is motivated by some spite or revenge,” Magistrate Christine Roney said.
“She has embarked on a course over several months of putting a metal object into fruit.”
Prosecutor Cheryl Tesch opposed bail as there was “an unacceptable risk of witnesses being interfered with”.
But Ms Trinh’s lawyer Michael Cridland said police had “not articulated” an actual alleged grievance.
The prosecution told the court the woman should also be kept behind bars for her own safety.
“There may be retribution from people seeking to locate her,” Prosecutor Tesch said.
However, Mr Cridland said there had been no evidence of direct threats towards his client.
Police have charged Ms Trinh with seven counts of contamination of goods with intent to cause economic loss.
The offence normally carries a three-year maximum penalty.
However, police allege there is a circumstance of “aggravation”, meaning the maximum jail term is increased to 10 years.
The court heard the woman’s DNA was found in a punnet of strawberries in Victoria.
Superintendent Jon Wacker, from the Queensland Police Drug and Serious Crime Group, said the investigation “was far from over”.
“DNA evidence will be part of the brief of evidence that will be submitted to the court,” he said.
Superintendent Wacker said items seized in Victoria had played an important role.
“This is a major and unprecedented police investigation with a lot of complexities involved,” Superintendent Wacker said in a statement.
“The Queensland Police Service has allocated a significant amount of resources to ensure those responsible are brought to justice.”
The contamination saga spread from Queensland across the country.
Superintendent Wacker said there were 186 reports of sewing needles being found, 77 of which were in Queensland.
He said 15 of those were found to be hoaxes.
Sixty-eight strawberry brands were affected, including 49 in Queensland.
The contamination scares resulted in supermarkets pulling strawberries off the shelves, and tonnes of the fruit was dumped at the peak of the growing season.
The Queensland and West Australian governments both offered $100,000 rewards for information leading to the arrest of the person or people responsible, while Prime Minister Scott Morrison introduced tougher fruit-tampering laws that would see those convicted face greater jail time.
‘I had to put 100 staff off’: Industry still reeling from crisis
Suncoast Harvest managing director Di West said her business had to leave more than one million punnets of strawberries on the ground, after the original and a number of copycat cases sent prices crashing.
“We had to finish our season very early, by nearly six weeks, in our peak season because of the crisis in September,” she told ABC Radio Brisbane.
“We had at least a million punnets of strawberries out there and we had to cease production straight away.
“There was so much copycatting and pranking going on that other farms, including ours, was being dragged into it.”
She said there were still a lot of unknowns for her business moving into the future.
“I had two separate agronomists tell us we had lost $1 million worth of fruit and that meant that $300,000 or $400,000 of that would have gone to workers’ wages — and now that money hasn’t been spent in the local economy,” she said.
“There’s flow-on effects — I had to put 100 staff off.”
Ms West said Australian customers had been very supportive, but she feared the industry’s reputation had been damaged internationally.
She had fruit stuck in New Zealand and Singapore at the peak of the crisis, which she was unable to sell.
“We had it X-rayed and everything to prove it was perfectly good, but the way this thing just escalated into basically a nuclear bomb going off … we just got caught up in it. So we’ve lost a lot of money.”
Grower Gavin Scurr from Pinata Farms at Wamuran said the arrest provided relief and peace of mind for fruit producers.
“It’s certainly been a rollercoaster ride for us and hopefully something we don’t see again in our industry,” Mr Scurr said.
Queensland Strawberry Growers Association vice president Adrian Schultz thanked police for their work.
“We’re just grateful that they pursued and continued to pursue their lines of inquiry and have come up with this result,” he said.
He said he hoped the industry could move on.
“This should put a full stop to this situation,” he said.