AN ANONYMOUS blackmailer has threatened to poison infant formula in New Zealand in an apparent protest against the use of a pesticide in agriculture.
Dairy giant Fonterra was sent the threat along with packets of milk powder laced with pesticide. The letters appeared to be a protest over the use of the pesticide 1080.
New Zealand prime minister John Key said the threat was likely a hoax, and assured parents that formula was safe for babies to drink.
But the announcement prompted fears of a backlash against the country’s crucial dairy industry.
Fonterra, the world’s largest exporter of dairy products and New Zealand’s biggest company, and farming association Federated Farmers both received anonymous letters in November. The letters were accompanied by small packages of milk powder that tested positive for a concentrated form of 1080, which is used by the country’s conservation department to control pests such as rats and possums.
The letters threatened to contaminate infant and other formula with 1080 unless New Zealand stopped using it by the end of March. New Zealand uses 80 per cent of the 1080 produced worldwide, and many animal welfare advocates oppose its use, arguing it causes animals to suffer slow, painful deaths.
The blackmailer had threatened to go public by the end of this month, prompting officials to make the announcement.
The nation’s ministry for primary industries said it had tested more than 40,000 product samples and found no evidence that any were contaminated.
“We are advised it is extremely unlikely anyone could deliberately contaminate formula during the manufacturing process and there is no evidence that this has ever occurred,” Mr Key said. “While it is very likely this threat is a hoax, we as the government have to take it seriously and I can assure you that we are.”
Police deputy commissioner of national operations Mike Clement said: “The letter writer may not have really considered the implications of their actions when this communication was drafted.”
Although Fonterra received one of the letters, the blackmailer did not specifically threaten the dairy company’s products.
New Zealand’s dairy industry drives the nation’s economy and any threat to its safety is treated with the utmost urgency. Companies such as Fonterra command a premium in the country’s biggest export market, China, because of their reputation for providing high-quality products. Fonterra chief Theo Spierings called the threat “despicable”.
The company said the entire dairy industry had been targeted, but it could assure its customers that “all of our milk and products are safe and of high quality, and our supply chain continues to be secure and world-class”.
In New Zealand, a blackmail conviction can carry a sentence of up to 14 years in prison.