A west Auckland grower is assuring the public that New Zealand strawberries are safe and unaffected by the needle debacle across the ditch.

In the first such reported case here, needles were found in a punnet of Australian-imported strawberries bought at St Lukes Countdown yesterday. The supermarket chain has since withdrawn the Choice brand from shelves at Countdown, SuperValue and FreshChoice outlets.

Police and the Ministry for Primary Industries are investigating.

Foodstuffs, which owns Pak'n Save, New World and Four Square, said last week it would halt the distribution of Australian strawberries in New Zealand.


The incident follows more than 100 reports of fruit being tampered with across Australia. The Choice brand was not implicated in the Australian contamination incident and associated recalls.

Shoppers at St Lukes Countdown this morning told the Herald they were "sickened" and "appalled" needles had been found, with several saying it had put them off wanting to buy the fruit altogether.

One woman, who didn't want to be named, was adamant it was a copycat and hoped that the culprit or culprits would be caught very soon.

Phil Greig, of Phil Greig Strawberry Gardens in Kumeu, told the Herald he's very concerned about public perception, as are other growers right now.

"It could be hugely damaging. The public might lose confidence in eating fruit in general," he says.

He says it's important for people not to panic. "Again, it's not a new Zealand problem, it's an Australian problem."

Greig, who's been in the industry for the past 30 years, says "a lot of things are happening behind the scenes" to ensure no sabotage does happen here. He wouldn't go into detail about what options were being looked at but did say metal detectors wouldn't work for everyone.

The season is just beginning, he says, pointing to the hundreds of strawberries ripe for picking behind him.


Earlier today, Agriculture and Biosecurity Minister Damien O'Connor said he wanted to know why more was not done to check the fruit before it was put on shelves.

O'Connor said he would have thought the importers and the supermarket would have checked, given the whole situation of potential copycat incidents after reports in Australia of needles being found in fruit.

Strawberry Growers New Zealand's executive manager Michael Ahern says while there's heightened awareness of the issues, there is absolutely no reason to think New Zealand strawberries will be targeted.

He says the biggest issue reported by strawberry growers right now was supply.

"We just need a bit more sunshine, daylight and warmth, and we will be underway to providing that traditionally positive feeling associated with New Zealand strawberries that summer and Christmas must be coming."

Ahern says there's a lot of money on the line. "It's a seasonal business and I guess we're just trying to manage the unknown."