Food terrorism has long loomed as an existential threat, but except for a couple of notable cases, it has seldom played out in real life. In 1984, 751 people were sickened in the Rajneeshee bioterror attack, in which cultists following a man named Osho deliberately contaminated ten salad bars with salmonella. Just over a decade earlier, two college students were arrested for plotting to poison Chicago's water supply with typhoid. In both cases, no one died.
In New Zealand, however, a new plot has emerged. And in what may be a first for bioterrorism, a person or group is threatening to poison people with the very same agricultural chemical they want outlawed.
Federated Farmers (FF), a farmers advocacy group, and Fonterra, a dairy cooperative that is responsible for nearly a third of the world's dairy exports, have both confirmed receipt of letters threatening to contaminate their milk products.
According to the BBC, the author of the letters demanded that unless New Zealand halt its use of a controversial pesticide by the end of March, he or she would poison the country's infant formula supply with that same pesticide. It is unknown whether the letters were written by an individual or on behalf of a group.
FF noted that the anonymous letter, which it received back in November, was addressed to the company's CEO and included a plastic bag full of powder. The package contained milk powder that tested positive for the pesticide.
The chemical in question is sodium fluoroacetate, also known as pesticide 1080. New Zealand is the largest user of 1080, which it employs to repel non-native mammals, including possums, rats, weasels, and rabbits. FF argues that 1080 is not only safe but necessary in halting the spread of bovine tuberculosis, which can be carried by possums, among dairy cattle.
Critics of 1080 say that the chemical is highly lethal to mammals, and is often responsible for deaths of "non-target" animals. A study by New Zealand's National Poisons Centre in 2008 found that at least 65 dogs are inadvertently poisoned by 1080 each year.
And the pesticide is, in fact, dangerous to humans in certain quantities. A 1995 report from the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland noted, "The widespread use of 1080 in pest control has caused accidental deaths of livestock, wildlife, pets (cats and dogs), and humans … and several suicides in Asia from drinking 1080 rat poison solutions."
The Patuxent report concluded that 1080 is "highly poisonous to all tested mammals and to humans" and that "it has been impossible to resuscitate any animal or human during the final stages of 1080 poisoning."
But Dr. William Rolleston, president of FF, said in a statement that 1080 use "has had minimal impact on non-target species."
Rolleston added that New Zealand's Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) has "implemented a comprehensive 1080 testing regime in dairy processing plants which should allay consumer concerns."
According to the New Zealand Herald, Prime Minister John Key said that the country's formula is still safe to consume, but that Fonterra and FF decided to go public with the threats due to increased media scrutiny. Key said that that there was "a low likelihood of the threat being carried out."
"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," Key said at a press conference at Parliament Tuesday.
MPI minister Nathan Guy added that 40,000 tests have been carried out on infant formula and milk products since the November threat, and none have found any trace of 1080.