The discovery of needles in a punnet of Australian strawberries sold in an Auckland supermarket is not only frightening, but upsetting, too.

Many New Zealanders will have felt for those caught up in the strawberry sabotage across the Tasman in the past two weeks: the anxious public, the devastated producers, the wary retailers.

It has been heartbreaking to see pictures of huge piles of prime strawberries being dumped for fear they may contain pins or needles, which could be extremely hazardous if unwittingly consumed.

What a needless waste of resources, too: of the space, soil, straw, nutrients and water required to produce each punnet of the delicious fruit; of the human time and labour involved in planting, nurturing, picking, packing, distributing, marketing and selling the popular product.


It is extremely difficult to know what to do for the best.

On the one hand people don't want to see good food go to waste and will want to support the growers who may - particularly here - be smaller market gardeners or niche producers less able to withstand the damage, especially if the saga draws on.

On the other hand, customers want to be sure there are no fragments of metal lurking in the fruit.

At this stage we can only imagine to what purpose these acts of sabotage have been carried out. In Australia, a young boy was arrested after admitting to inserting needles in the berries. With more than 100 similar cases reported there, authorities believe copycat offenders are also to blame.

Is the same scenario playing out here?

A youngster may think they are committing a prank, but may be unaware of the ramifications of their actions. The cost to the industry of what amounts to food terrorism is potentially huge.

New Zealand, as a primary producer, is aware of its vulnerability. We have rigorous biosecurity measures, but the battle against pests and diseases which threaten plant and animal health is relentless - as the likes of Mycoplasma bovis, Varroa, PSA and myrtle rust show.

Many taxpayer millions go on education, screening, testing, eradication and management. The cost to the economy in the event of a major crisis is, of course, even greater.

The last thing this country needs, then, is an intentional act of food sabotage. We like to think our food security measures are robust and we can have faith in our products and producers. Indeed, we bank on that to sell our products in other markets.

But, as anywhere, we are vulnerable to individuals who seek to do harm. Not long ago the country was effectively held to ransom just by a threat to contaminate infant milk formula with 1080.

The authorities face a formidable task finding those responsible - potentially on both sides of the Tasman - in this case. It is hoped the culprits can be identified as soon as possible, however, so this frightening episode can be put to rest before more damage is done.