'Criminal blackmail threat' to poison baby formula with 1080
Police have revealed a threat to poison New Zealand milk products with 1080 in an apparent protest over pest control.
Today it was revealed that Fonterra and Federated Farmers received threatening letters last November, along with milk packages that tested positive for the poison.
The letters threatened to contaminate infant formula and other products if New Zealand did not cease to use the poison by the end of March. It also threatened to disclose the matter publicly.
Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement said the threat was probably a hoax, but it had to be taken seriously. He urged the letter writer to come forward.
The Government is highly sensitive to food safety, and particularly the impact it could have on consumer confidence in China.
Police and the Ministry for Primary Industries held a joint press conference at police headquarters on Monday afternoon.
MPI deputy director general Scott Gallacher said the organisation was as confident about the integrity of New Zealand's food products as it was before the threat.
1080 is widely used by the Department of Conservation to control pests such as possums, rats and stoats.
Police said Fonterra's products were not specifically mentioned in the letter.
Clement said the letter writer may not have realised the possible consequences of their actions.
He would welcome any approach from the person who made the threat, but would not negotiate the end of using 1080 in New Zealand.
Up to 36 police officers have been engaged in Operation Concord.
* Government reassures consumers product is still safe.
* Testing of 40,000 samples.
* Supermarkets bolster security.
* Police seek public help finding the blackmailer.
* Q&A: What is 1080?
NO EVIDENCE OF CONTAMINATION
Prime Minister John Key assured parents infant formula was safe to drink.
"We are confident every measure has been taken to protect the food system, including rigorous testing with 40,000 tests done already.
"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.
"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."
Key said the Government had intended informing the public next week, but media interest prompted officials to bring it forward.
"As you know from police the blackmailer had threatened to go public at the end of March.
"The first priority for police was to carry out a thorough investigation and 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.
"These steps included 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.
"My message to parents in particular today is that while it is very likely this threat is a hoax we, as the government, have to take it seriously and I assure you that we are."
* Call MPI on 0800 723 665, if you suspect infant formula could have been tampered with.
* Call Plunketline, phone 0800 933 922, for advice on feeding your baby.
* Call Healthline, phone 0800 611 116, if you are concerned about how your baby is feeding or about vomiting or constipation.
* Anyone with information is encouraged to contact the police inquiry team on 0800 723 665 or email email@example.com
* Information can also be disclosed anonymously to the organisation Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.
Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy labelled the threat "eco-terrorism".
He said there had been extensive testing that showed products were safe.
"I want to give confidence to consumers and international consumers that New Zealand food products are safe."
He said every resource had been made available to deal with the threat since November.
"Ministers have taken expert advice on how to respond to a threat of this type and made considered decisions."
Food Safety Minister Jo Goodhew urged parents "not to stop using the infant and other formula you are currently using".
She defended the failure to warn parents when the threat was first made three months ago.
She said MPI had analysed the supply chain "in detail" and ensured extra security measures had been put in place.
"This new testing is on top of our normal thorough testing, auditing and verification system. It is extremely unlikely that anybody could deliberately contaminate formula during manufacturing, and there is no evidence of this ever having occurred."
Retailers have also been spoken to about any risk to food products in stores, she said.
Key said the official advice "on all this stuff" is that there was no need to issue a warning to parents earlier.
He confirmed that the Government briefed a number of parties including international trading partners well in advance of today's public announcement.
He did not believe that placed babies at greater risk.
"There was a time when the threat in theory was going to happen.
"The police strongly advised us they needed some time to undertake the investigation."
It was also important to develop a test before the threat made it into the public domain.
"The bigger risk would have been if we had gone to the public domain."
The likelihood of the threat being carried out was extremely low and people should have a high degree of confidence in the safety of product.
"I would continue to use it."
Key said such threats were not uncommon internationally and it was common practice not to make any public statement.
He said the Government would not bow to the threats by changing its use of 1080.
Labour's primary industries spokesman Damian O'Connor said it is "a bit early" for speculation but "[questions] indeed need to be answered."
"We have to assume that the timing and the process since November has been the right one and they have done everything necessary," O'Connor said.
"I think people will be asking what they have actually done in the market place and in testing."
MPI says it is "confident" that New Zealand infant and other formula is just as safe today as it was before the threat was made.
"People should keep using it as they always have," Gallacher said.
"The ability for anybody to deliberately contaminate infant and other formula during manufacturing is extremely low."
New Zealanders should continue to use products and "feel equally confident about using imported infant formula, which has to meet New Zealand's strict food safety requirements," Gallacher said.
The ability for products to be deliberately contaminated is considered extremely low by MPI but regardless it is taking the threat seriously.
Since the threat was made MPI has put additional measures in place to further protect infant formula products.
These include strengthened security measures in retail stores, enhanced milk testing, increased vigilance and extra physical security at manufacturing premises and an audit programme to ensure dairy processing facilities continue to operate at the highest level.
Gallacher said this type of threat did occur from time to time internationally.
"We are fortunate this is the first such threat in New Zealand," he said.
MPI said the "fundamental concern" was protecting the safety of food products.
Police Minister Michael Woodhouse was told about the letter threat when it was received in November. Police say it is a "criminal blackmail threat".
Police said the public should come forward with information about people they know with strong feelings about 1080.
"This is a threat and in reality it's simply not practical to carry it out," police said.
Police have confirmed there were some developments with the case today that sparked the public release of information, but were reluctant to say what those developments are.
Gallacher is not ruling out stopping the use of 1080 on the back of the threat.
He said the overarching priority is to ensure the safety of New Zealanders.
The letter purported to be from one person.
Authorities in all of New Zealand's major markets have been briefed about the threat and the response being taken.
Just before the announcement, the New Zealand dollar dipped against the US and Australian currencies but has now recovered to be trading at 73USc and 95.5A cents.
Fears that a bacteria which could cause botulism was in Fonterra products caused a major food safety scare in 2013.
Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings said New Zealand dairy products were safe.
The threat was a "despicable act against New Zealand".
New Zealand milk products had not tested positive for 1080.
Police and the Government were leading the investigation but the dairy industry had thrown its full weight behind the Government's response.
Spierings said the threat was "very unlikely" to be carried out.
However, additional measures had been put in place to ramp up security and testing of products.
"We can fully assure our customers and consumers that all of our milk and products are safe and of high quality, and our supply chain continues to be secure and world-class.
"We have taken immediate and decisive steps to give our customers and consumers added confidence - including increased testing and security measures."
Those steps included working with MPI on a testing regime, testing every tanker of raw milk Fonterra processes, and testing all paediatric products and nutritional base powders Fonterra manufactures.
Tatua co-operative chief executive Paul McGilvary said since the threat was received 35,000 tests had been carried out but no 1080 had been detected.
Criminal threats always made people worried, McGilvary said.
However, New Zealand milk products were safe, he said.
The time elapsed between the threat and today's announcement was due to the length of time it took to carry out a police investigation and to allow the industry to lock down its supply chain and put additional food safety measures in place, McGilvary said.
The number one focus was on keeping consumers and babies safe, he said.
Spierings said it was too early to comment on the "value consequences" or potential financial fallout from the threat.
The main focus was on the criminal threat and ensuring the safety of consumers, including babies, he said.
McGilvary said the industry was conscious of the possible effects on business.
However, by taking additional measures and locking down the supply chain, hopefully trading partners and consumers would feel reassured of the products' safety.
Major overseas trading partners had already been made aware of the threat and the additional measures the industry had taken.
Foodstuffs, which operates New World, Pak'n Save and Four Square supermarkets, said they were "taking the threat very seriously and are putting in place all possible precautions to protect customers".
They had put in place additional security in stores, including "heightened surveillance", and all stores would offer an MPI consumer guide.
Countdown also said its stores had additional security measures.
"Some of these security measures will mean it takes a little bit more time for customers to purchase infant formula, but together these steps will ensure constant monitoring of the product, either in person or by CCTV. Consumer safety is our absolute priority and we are supporting the NZ Police and MPI investigation in any way we can," said Countdown's Acting Managing Director, Steve Donohue.
That additional security includes CCTV cameras, shifting infant formula off shelves to monitored counters, and random sampling of product.
The Department of Conservation describes 1080 (sodium fluoroacetate) as a chemical reproduction of a naturally occurring, biodegradable poison that plants use to discourage browsing animals. When consumed in high doses, it disrupts the metabolic pathway, preventing animals from extracting energy from food. They die from cardiac or respiratory failure.
The poison can be dropped from the sky in pellet form or mixed into baits and used to control a range of pests, especially possums, rats and stoats. It is biodegradable and does not build up in the food chain.