Some mentally disordered individual in our midst must be satisfied today. He (let us assume no woman would scare mothers of babies in this way) has not stopped the use of 1080 pesticide but he has got the country worried. It is much less worried about 1080 than about whether he will try to carry out his threat to contaminate milk formula, but he will not mind. He has drawn attention to his cause.
"Mentally disordered" is the most polite description of somebody who would manipulate parents' fears for this purpose, let alone act on his threat to poison babies. Police believe the threat made more than three months ago is likely to be a hoax but they and the Government have been worried enough as his deadline approaches to make it public.
By doing so they have given the culprit the satisfaction of not just national publicity but international damage to New Zealand's most valuable export. Dairy traders must be wondering what they have done to deserve another food safety alert so soon after the botulism false alarm. They can reasonably wonder whether these scares need to be made public in the way the Government does.
Others are wondering whether the public should have been told of the 1080 threat much earlier. The envelopes of contaminated milk power were sent to Fonterra and Federated Farmers more than three months ago, with the threat to act if the Department of Conservation did not cease 1080 drops by the end of this month. The Prime Minister says the police asked that nothing be made public while they tried to trace the envelopes and catch the culprit.
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The Government was right to say nothing until discreet inquiries had failed and there is a chance a public appeal might help police catch him. The interval appears to have permitted the industry to be well prepared. Testing for 1080 has been introduced at the manufacturing stage and more secure arrangements made for products on sale.
Consumer safety information lines have also been set up. Any worried parent should have no difficulty finding advice online about checking containers for signs of tampering and what to do if they find one.
Food products are far more vulnerable to threats than to actual sabotage. It takes only a threat to cast doubt on the safety of all of the product on the market, carrying out the threat against a product such as tinned milk powder would be much harder. And hardly worth the effort and risk when the threat alone is effective.
John Key observes that other countries' food manufacturers frequently receive threats that come to nothing and they say nothing publicly. Ours are not so fortunate. At times like this Fonterra could be too close to the Government for the industry's own good. Politicians are anxious to issue public warnings in case they are later accused of a cover-up. Their announcements, usually involving the Prime Minister, attract maximum attention overseas and can take years to correct. Promoters of New Zealand food products can only wish precautionary warnings could be made in a lower Key.