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Man charged in New Zealand baby formula case

A New Zealand man has been charged with blackmail. He allegedly threatened to lace baby formula with the pesticide 1080 and sought to extort money from the country's multibillion-dollar dairy industry.

The 60-year-old businessman appeared before a court in the northern city of Auckland on Tuesday following one of the biggest criminal investigations to have faced New Zealand's police force.

The defendant allegedly sent letters to dairy giant Fonterra and the NZ Farmer's Federation in November, warning that baby formula would be poisoned unless New Zealand stopped environmental use of the poison. Critics of the 1080 pesticide claim that it indiscriminately kills wildlife.

Court documents allege, however, that he primary motivation for the scheme was financial gain, local media reported.

If found guilty of the two counts of blackmail, the man, whose identity has not been made public, could face up to 14 years in prison.

Fears for dairy industry

Following the revelations earlier this year, the country's food industry deemed the threat "an attack on Brand New Zealand."

After the alarm was publicly raised in March, the country's currency crashed to a five-week low. New Zealand is also still recovering from a false botulism alarm in 2013, which saw baby formula being taken off shelves from China to Saudi Arabia.

Amid fears of further repercussions for New Zealand's dairy industry, which accounts for a third of the nation's exports, police launched a massive investigation lasting almost 11 months and costing more than 3 million New Zealand dollars (1.8 million euros/$2 million).

"Today's arrest is the result of dedicated investigative work over many months," Police Commissioner Mike Bush said on Tuesday.

The chief executive of Fonterra, Theo Spierings, said the company was "pleased to hear that an arrest has been made as part of the investigation into the criminal blackmail threat."

The accused man will remain in custody until October 28, when he is expected to enter a plea on two charges of criminal blackmail.

ksb/kms (AFP, dpa)

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