Police Hunt Extortionists; Baby Food Tampering Cases Top 200
LONDON (AP) _ Police in Britain and Ireland stepped up the hunt Thursday for extortionists who spiked baby food with glass, razor blades and caustic soda, and the number of reported cases of tampering rose to more than 200.
Three babies were hospitalized in England but were released after doctors found they were not harmed by contaminated food, hospital authorities said. The only victims so far are a 9-month-old girl who cut her mouth on a piece of razor blade in a jar of yogurt and two mothers cut by glass hidden in baby food.
Police said the total number of reported cases stood at about 220.
Not all the reported cases have been confirmed. Police say the majority of cases are probably the work of ″copy-cats, people getting on the bandwagon, cranks and some cases of self-contamination,″ an unidentified police detective said, according to Press Association, the British domestic news agency.
He said they believe there may be some cases of people putting items in food in a bid to claim compensation from companies, but the vast majority will be by cranks and copycats.
″We are not pointing the finger at mothers. People are genuinely finding contaminants in food,″ the detective was quoted as saying.
Scotland Yard said no one has been arrested in connection with the contamination but that some people were arrested locally for hoaxes. A Yard spokesman had no details of the hoaxes.
H.J. Heinz Co. Ltd. and Cow and Gate Ltd., which together control nearly 80 percent of Britain’s baby food market, on Wednesday offered a joint reward totaling $169,000 for information leading to the conviction of the extortionists.
U.S.-owned Heinz said it had received an extortion demand it refused to disclose. It issued a statement Thursday saying it had not paid any money and never would. Cow and Gate, owned by Nutricia of the Netherlands, said it had not received a demand.
Police said only two of the reported cases were definitely linked to the Heinz threat.
Police and government officials refused to comment on newspaper reports that the extortionists were paid $850,000 this year and were now demanding an additional $1.7 million.
Scotland Yard, which is coordinating the hunt for the saboteurs, refused to comment on the investigation. The Daily Telegraph, a respected conservative daily, said detectives from 12 countries were searching for the extortionists.
Local police forces reported 91 cases of suspected baby food contamination, including five in Northern Ireland, and 21 more unconfirmed cases. Across the border in the Republic of Ireland, police said two cases were under investigation.
Home Office Minister John Patten said Wednesday that 28 incidents of tampering with jars and cans of baby food had been reported since April 7, including 11 on Wednesday.
Mothers reported finding glass shards, pins, needles, broken razor blades, stones and caustic baby soda in jars and cans of baby food and in one case, in powdered milk. Most were in Heinz or Cow and Gate products, but several were in other brands of baby food.
Heinz and Cow and Gate have not pulled their baby food products off supermarket shelves. In stores where contaminated jars and cans have been found, all stock has been replaced.
Both companies have said their internal investigations have determined that their products were not tampered with during production.
Press Association said Scotland Yard detectives believe the extortionists may have mastered a sophisticated technique of resealing jars. The small glass jars have metal lids with an indented center that indicates the vacuum seal has not been broken.
In its statement Thursday, Heinz said, ″Police have stressed that there has not at any time been a need for a general or batch recall of baby food products.″
The company stressed that a general withdrawal of the products ″would not solve external tampering. The problem would reappear at any future date on Heinz products or any other food products sold in grocery outlets.″
Several newspapers, including The Daily Telegraph and the Times of London, said the extortionists had demanded $1.7 million. The Times said Heinz was the target, the Telegraph said both Heinz and Cow and Gate were the targets.
The Telegraph said police believe a gang that extorted $85,000 from a large supermarket chain this year by threatening to poison food on its shelves turned its attention last month to Heinz and Cow and Gate.