Threat to contaminate baby formula

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Police are appealing for the publics' help following a threat to contaminate infant formula and other formula in an apparent protest over the use of 1080 poison in pest control.

Federated Farmers and Fonterra received anonymous letters in November. Small packages of milk powder, which later tested positive for a concentrated form of 1080, accompanied the letters.

The letters carried a threat to contaminate formula with 1080 unless New Zealand stopped using the poison for pest control by the end of March.

Police said the letter was likely to be a hoax, but the person or people who wrote the letters threatened to make their threat public if the Government did not meet their demand by the end of this month.

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Prime Minister John Key said it was a "form of ecoterrorism, without doubt".

That was despite officials being very confident the risk of the threat being carried out was low.

He said he was confident every measure had been taken to address the threat. He was very confident New Zealand's food remained safe.

Speaking at a press conference at Parliament, Mr Key said his message to parents was that there was a low likelihood of the threats been acted upon, and he was confident that food products were safe.

Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy said since the threats more than 40,000 tests had been carried out on products and no infant or other milk formula product had shown any trace of 1080.

"Police have advised there is a low likelihood of the threat being carried out, but because of the nature of it, both the police and ministers have taken the treat seriously," Mr Key said.

"I want to reassure parents that every step possible has been taken to respond to the threat, to ensure the ongoing safety of our food products.

"Obviously we also needed to work with the industry to ensure every step was taken to protect the supply chain before the public was informed," Mr Key said.

"These steps include the development and implementation of a specific testing regime. Official advice was to be very cautious about making this threat public until appropriate measures were in place. Today there have been a number of media queries so we have brought the announcement forward."

"Police have advised there is a low likelihood of the threat being carried out, but because of the nature of it, both the police and ministers have taken the treat seriously," Mr Key said.

"I want to reassure parents that every step possible has been taken to respond to the threat, to ensure the ongoing safety of our food products."

"It is eco-terrorism," Mr Guy said this afternoon. Mr Guy said the criminal blackmail threat was "absolutely appalling."

He said 40,000 tests were carried out in recent weeks and 20 manufacturers contacted.

No traces of 1080 were found in any of the tested products, Mr Guy said

Mike Clement, Police deputy commissioner of national operations, (right), and Ministry for Primary Industries deputy director general Scott Gallagher. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Mike Clement, Police deputy commissioner of national operations, (right), and Ministry for Primary Industries deputy director general Scott Gallagher. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Police ask for help

Police National Headquarters said a full investigation began in November, with an Auckland-based team called Operation Concord involving up to 36 police staff.

Mike Clement, Police deputy commissioner of national operations, said although it was possible the threat was a hoax, it must be treated seriously. He encouraged the person or group to make themselves known.

"The letter writer may not have really considered the implications of their actions when this communication was drafted," Mr Clement said.

Several specialist groups and support agencies, including MPI, were involved.

Federated Farmers was also helping with the investigation.

Mr Clement said authorities were using all available resources to resolve the issue but wanted the public's help.

"You might be aware of someone who has strong views [about] 1080 and has made threats," Mr Clement said. "Please make contact with us."

"This criminal threat is designed to cause fear in order to generate a domestic policy outcome," Ministry for Primary Industries deputy director general Scott Gallagher said.

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Yet he said he was confident New Zealand infant and other formula was "just as safe today" as it was before the threat was made.

"This type of threat does occur from time to time internationally," he said.

However, it was the first such threat received in New Zealand.

Mr Gallagher said Kiwis could be proud of the country's food safety model, which was among the world's best.

"Since this threat was made, security and vigilance has been significantly increased," he added.

He said "all the relevant players in the supply chain" had strengthened security after the threat.

He said MPI and industry partners confirm "there is no 1080 in infant and other formula."

Mr Gallagher said a new testing regime enhanced already strong testing and food safety measures.

He said industry partners including retailers had strengthened food safety since the threat.

People should check packaging for any signs of tampering as a result of "this criminal blackmail threat", even though Mr Gallagher said formula was probably actually safer now than ever before, thanks to enhanced safety regimes.

Mike Clement, police deputy commissioner of National Operations, at today's announcement. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Mike Clement, police deputy commissioner of National Operations, at today's announcement. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Mr Clement said police treated the incident as a "crime of blackmail" rather than a terrorist act.

No particular brand or company's formula was targeted.

Mr Clement said the investigation commenced in secret but it was time to ask for the public's help, and police also believed the threat was low, so there was no need to go public before.

He said police had always treated the case "very seriously" despite starting inquiries out of the public eye.

"There are many other factors to consider, one of which has been food safety."

Mr Clement would not say where the threat was sent.

Mr Clement said he couldn't rule out negotiating with the person or people who made the threat.

"As negotiations go, everything's considered," Mr Clement said.

"If there's a dialogue entered...then we will seek common ground."

He said he would "welcome an approach" from the party or parties who made the threat.

Mr Gallagher said his goal was to give "mums and dads" assurance the products they bought were safe.

Fonterra CE Theo Sperrings (centre) at a press conference at Fonterra headquarters with Paul McGilvary (left).
Fonterra CE Theo Sperrings (centre) at a press conference at Fonterra headquarters with Paul McGilvary (left).

Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings said the dairy industry had thrown its full weight behind the police and Government investigation.

He said the threat was a "despicable act".

His main priority was to protect consumers and "robust" testing had not shown any sign of the chemical.

"Our product is safe, as an industry we will be continually working together."

"We have done everything in our power to ensure consumer safety," Mr Spierings said.

He said the threat made him "quite angry".

He said trading partners and some customers had been informed at an earlier date, but the potential for financial loss was not at the forefront for the company.

Mr McGilvary supported that sentiment.

"We have to protect people... We are conscious that we want to keep markets open and keep doing business."

When asked why the dairy industry hadn't informed the public, the representatives said it was down to police and government investigations while the industry focused on safety and security.

Paul McGilvary of Tatua said while his company did not produce infant formula or milk powder but he said the threat was targeted at the dairy industry as a whole.

He said the threat had increased the security of the supply chain and retailers were on board with tamper-proof measures.

"These things really heighten the focus ... Our number one driver for every action we take is safety for children in NZ and overseas."

He said it was "absolutely wrong" for the threat to be targeted at consumers.

Federated Farmers: Security is first class

Federated Farmers confirmed it received the anonymous letter, addressed to chief executive Graham Smith, at its Wellington offices in late November.

The letter, accompanied by an enclosed plastic bag containing a powder, was handed over to police.

Federated Farmers president Dr William Rolleston said the letter was of extremely serious concern.

"But I am confident from what I've seen that our regulatory authorities and processors have created formidable barriers to any such threat being carried out.

"I've recently been invited through Fonterra's Canpac plant in Hamilton where they do secondary milk powder packaging as well as the Te Rapa factory which manufactures 20 percent of Fonterra's national milkpowder production.

"It's evident that the security surrounding dairy processing in New Zealand is second to none and the tamper proofing of the product is also first class."

Dr Rolleston said MPI had implemented a comprehensive 1080 testing regime in dairy processing plants "which should allay consumer concerns".

He said the use of 1080 was both a vital and safe means of controlling the spread of bovine tuberculosis (Tb) between New Zealand dairy herds.

"The significant reduction in bovine Tb incidence over recent years shows 1080 is very effective, while its use has had minimal impact on non-target species."

Dr Rolleston said farmers could help to counter the sabotage threat.

"We fully support the police investigation and I urge any members of Federated Farmers to immediately notify police if they have any information which may assist the police in their enquiries."

'Formula is just as safe today'

MPI deputy director-general Scott Gallagher said the Government's first priority was protecting the health and well-being of consumers.

"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," he said.

"People should feel equally confident about using imported infant formula which has to meet New Zealand's strict food safety requirements and is equally secure in the retail chain."

The ability for anybody to deliberately contaminate infant and other formula during manufacturing was "extremely low," he said.

"Regardless, we encourage people to be vigilant when buying infant and other formula. Our advice is always to check packaging for signs of tampering. We are reinforcing that advice as a result of this blackmail threat.

"New Zealand's food safety model is among the best in the world. New Zealand manufacturers maintain high levels of security as a normal routine. Security and vigilance has been significantly increased since this threat was received."

Since the threat was made, MPI along with multiple government agencies, manufacturers and retailers has put additional measures in place to further protect infant formula products, including:

- strengthened security measures in retail stores
- enhanced milk and milk product testing, including a new 1080 testing programme
- increased vigilance by all relevant players in the supply chain
- extra physical security at manufacturing premises
- an audit programme to confirm dairy processing facilities continue to maintain the highest level of security and vigilance.

Mr Gallagher said: "The combined MPI and industry testing programmes confirm there is no 1080 in infant and other formula. We have tested just over 40,000 raw milk and product samples and we have had no 1080 detections."

It was the first such threat in New Zealand, he said, adding that New Zealand had "one of the world's strongest and most secure food safety systems".

Mr Gallagher said "all parts of the supply chain" were involved in reacting to the initial threat.

"As things stand today...we have every confidence that any product on the shelves is as safe as it was before the threat."

Asked what MPI would do when the "deadline" arrived at the end of March, he said "increased vigilance" was important, just as it was essential anyone with information about the threat contacted police.

Increased security at supermarkets

Supermarket giant Foodstuffs has released a statement saying formula purchased from its stores is safe, and there will be increased security in its stores to ensure that.

"Foodstuffs is committed to ensuring Kiwi families can have confidence in the infant formula purchased from our stores," the statement said.

"While the Police assess the risk of the contamination threat being carried out as low we are still taking the threat very seriously and are putting in place all possible precautions to protect customers.

"We are doing everything we can to ensure the product is safe and is not able to be tampered with. Across our stores we have put additional security and controls in place to safeguard the product and make sure it is protected and delivered to customers securely.

"This means all customers entering a Foodstuffs store will be subject to heightened surveillance and there will be higher security in-store."

In a strongly worded statement, the New Zealand Food & Grocery Council has condemned the "coward" behind the 1080 threats.

"The council has absolute confidence in the safety of the New Zealand food supply," the council said in a statement.

"This is an attack on Brand New Zealand [sic]. Our country has a reputation for producing safe, high-quality food products which are in demand around the world, and this coward's letter doesn't change that at all.

"These letters are an attack on all New Zealanders, designed to gain publicity and cause the maximum damage to the New Zealand economy."

The council said it was " absolutely confident" about the safety of infant formula manufacturing in New Zealand and products sold in supermarkets here.

"Food manufacturing in New Zealand is safer now than at any time in our history. Even so, our infant formula companies have chosen to add additional testing and even more stringent security measures - beyond what is already world-best practice and regulatory requirements - solely to give consumers additional reassurance during this difficult time."
Stringent guidelines to deal with malicious product tampering had been in place across a range of industries for decades, the statement said.

Examples included standardised packaging that revealed tampering and the security protocols of supermarkets and food stores.

'The work of a nutter'

New Zealand Infant Formula Exporters Association chief administration officer Chris Claridge said the 1080 threat was "the work of a nutter" who was blackmailing the Government.

"We hope that the police find them as soon as possible," he said. "Anyone who would threaten the safety of infants deserves to be hung, drawn and quartered, as far as I'm concerned."

Claridge, also the owner of infant formula export Carrickmore Nutrition, said there absolutely no risk to infant formula on the market.

"We've got every confidence that our systems are robust," he said. "Consumers should be confident in what they're consuming and should not buy into this blackmail threat by a nutter."

Claridge said it was too soon to tell how export markets, such as China, would react to the news of the 1080 threat.

"It really depends how the Chinese media report this," he said.

Fonterra's 2013 false botulism scare spooked Chinese consumers and took a heavy toll on New Zealand's infant formula industry.

Labour's Primary Industries and Food Safety spokesman Damien O'Connor said the threats should be seen as "an idiotic and extreme protest" that had put the economy at risk.

"Fonterra is a major player in international dairy exports and must be prepared for risks - real or threatened.

"Labour hopes the Ministry for Primary Industries has the resources to manage this serious issue, while it also struggles to contain the Queensland fruit fly outbreak in Auckland," Mr O'Connor said.

"We offer our full support to police investigating this blackmail attempt and urge the public to do anything they can to help identify the idiot or idiots responsible."

'Totally irresponsible'

Blenheim man Tony Orman, a long-time opponent of 1080, was appalled to hear about the threat.

"That sort of method of protest is totally irresponsible," he said.

"I can understand people being absolutely frustrated with the Government's pig-headedness around 1080 and the continued use of it ... and I'm not surprised at their frustration. But I don't condone their form of protest."

Mr Orman said 1080 use caused irreparable harm to the environment and needed to be challenged.

He and others had spent many years doing so.

But this protest was unacceptable.

"I definitely don't condone it and it just doesn't do any good at all for anyone to try these sort of tactics."

Parents said they were "sickened" and "terrified" by the news.

Many took to Facebook parenting sites to discuss what to do about the formula threat.

"So terrifying and making me so scared," wrote mum Beckah Fox on the Baby Within page.

"I still give my 15 month old formula as he won't take to standard milk as yet," said Gaewyn Pook. "No joke, I'm very scared about this."

Ines Topolanski said the person making the threats was "sick in the head".

Baby consultant Dorothy Waide said she believed babies' safety should be put first.

"Can we stop 1080 until we find out if it's a genuine threat? Until we find out who these people are?" she said.

"Otherwise how do we value our babies, our future?"

She said parents should have be told about the threat when it was first made.

What is 1080?

Sodium monofluoroacetate, commonly known as 1080, is a fine white powder. It has a slight odour and taste and is said to dissolve easily in water.

While manufactured 1080 is a highly lethal poison to many species, the active ingredient, fluoroacetate, is identical to a substance that occurs naturally in many poisonous plants.
These plants are found in Brazil, Africa, and Australia.

1080 comes in several forms, usually in small dyed green pellets, but also sprayed with carrot baits, pastes and gels.

• Parents with any concerns could call Plunketline on 0800 933 922 or Healthline on 0800 611 116 for advice.
• The Ministry of Health said anyone who suspected tampering could contact 0800 723665 to report suspected tampering.
• Anybody who suspected their formula had been tampered with could also take it to their nearest police station.
• If cans or bottles of formula had tears, rips, holes, punctures or noticeable bulges, it was possible the product inside had been tampered with.
• Visit www.foodprotection.govt.nz for more advice on how to check packaging for signs of tampering, and for information about government's response to the threat.
• Police said those who had information about the threats should call the Operation Concord team on 0800 723 665, or the independent group Crimestoppers on 08000 555 111.

- NZ Herald

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