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Farmers in New Zealand received ‘criminal blackmail threat’ to poison baby formula

New Zealand farmers received 'criminal blackmail threat' to poison baby formula.

New Zealand farmers received ‘criminal blackmail threat’ to poison baby formula. Photo: Stuff

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key is fighting to reassure parents that New Zealand’s infant formula is still safe, as the product is stripped off shelves in the face a threat to poison babies.

As rumours of an extortion threat to the dairy industry began to leak on Tuesday, police revealed a major investigation had been under way since November, prompted by threats to Fonterra and Federated Farmers that products would be poisoned unless the Government stopped using 1080 for pest control by the end of March.

The letters sent to the organisations contained packages with milk powder which later tested positive for 1080 poison.

New Zealand’s Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement said the threat was probably a hoax, and would be almost impossible to carry out, but it had to be taken seriously.

He urged the letter writer, or anyone who thought they could have information about the letters, to come forward.

Operation Concord involves as many as 36 police officers, but up to 1000 people are believed to have been aware of the threat across a number of government agencies and within the private sector.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) stepped up security measures in a bid to provide reassurance, including testing more than 40,000 batches of formula.

No sign of poison was found, but the country’s major trading partners have been repeatedly briefed in an attempt to avoid consumer panic, especially in China, a major buyer of New Zealand dairy products.

Less than an hour after the news emerged, Key told a press conference that he would still be prepared to use New Zealand’s products.

“We remain highly confident our products are safe. We already have a world-class system and new and increased dairy products testing gives us even greater assurance.”

Key said the actions of the unknown letter writer were “eco-terrorism” and an attempt to bully the Government, but the chance of carrying out the threat was “extremely low”.

However, he admitted that in a competitive trading market there was a risk that competitors could use the threat against New Zealand to block market access.

MPI urged parents to check formula packaging for signs it had been opened or tampered with, and both of New Zealand’s major supermarket groups said that from now on formula would be sold behind the counter, one of a number of new security measures.

Used widely by the Department of Conservation to control pests such as stoats and possums through aerial drops, 1080 is highly controversial, especially among the hunting community.

The fledgling Ban1080 Party attracted just over 5000 votes at the last election, but last night campaigners distanced themselves from the threat.

Despite Key’s assurances there were signs that parents of newborns might react to the scare.

Christchurch man Matt Richens – whose wife Lisa had their first child this week – said the threats were “gutless” and “terrorist-like”. Although doubtful that there was a real threat, Richens would probably not be willing to take any chance and would avoid feeding the baby the formula.

“I’d take a risk if it was beer because that only affects me, but I’m not taking a risk with a newborn and that’s what they’ve preyed on,” Richens said.

Scott Gallacher, deputy director-general at MPI, said that added security meant that, if anything, New Zealand’s infant formula products were safer now than before the threat.

“We are confident that New Zealand infant and other formula is just as safe today as it was before this threat was made. People should keep using it as they always have.”

n 2013 after a scare that Fonterra products could contain a bacteria causing botulism, a severe form of food poisoning, a number of countries temporarily blocked imports of New Zealand dairy products in response. Tests eventually confirmed it wasn’t botulism.


Henry Sapiecha


March 31st, 2015

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