Strawberry industry fears consumer backlash after NZ needle discovery

Strawberry growers in New Zealand are fearing for their livelihoods after needles were discovered in a punnet of strawberries in Auckland. 

Strawberry Growers NZ executive manager Michael Ahern is urging New Zealanders not to be overly concerned, telling The AM Show on Monday growers will "do everything they can to provide the New Zealand consumer with a trusted and reliable product". 

"There are a number of growers with their livelihoods on the line, and their employees and their service companies - there is a lot at stake," he said, adding it could be a "massive blow" for the local strawberry industry. 

The contaminated strawberry punnet was purchased from an Auckland Countdown. The supermarket has withdrawn the Australian Choice brand from its shelves as a precaution, and is advising customers to cut up the berries before biting into them.

It comes after needles were found hidden inside strawberries, an apple and a banana across the Tasman. The scare has hit Australia's industry hard, with the daughter of a farm owner whose strawberries were sabotaged posting a heartbreaking video showing the harrowing impact of the crisis on her family's livelihood. 

There are now concerns that New Zealanders will stop buying strawberries altogether, despite Foodstuffs and Countdown halting the distribution of Australian strawberries in the wake of the scare.

An unscientific online poll hosted by The AM Show on Monday found 50 percent of Kiwis will stop buying strawberries because of the food-tampering scare. 

But Mr Ahern says Kiwis shouldn't be put off buying strawberries, telling The AM Show it is "something we have to take cognisance of and make sure that our normal processes and practices are as good as ever".

He implored that no more Australian strawberries are coming to New Zealand, and that "a number of outlets had already ceased to carry Australia's strawberries prior to this weekend's event".

"The growers I've spoken to in the last couple of weeks - bearing in mind we are at the beginning of the season - their main concern is that they haven't been able to supply enough. So far, there has been extremely keen demand and no real resistance."

However, the industry is "not being idle about this", he added, saying it still needs to "defend the trust and loyalty that we've created with New Zealand consumers over many years".

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has been monitoring the Australian situation, he said, and will be "very well-briefed and informed as to what's happened over the weekend at Countdown".

"The protocols and methods for which products enter New Zealand have a certain amount of MPI oversight but the rest is left to the commercial operators."

Some strawberry growers are now considering introducing metal detectors.