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New Cases of Tainted Baby Food Plague Britons

Times Staff Writer

British police said Thursday that they have been on the trail of an extortioner who contaminates baby food with glass and pins since last August but that their search has been vastly complicated by what appears to be scores of new, publicity-inspired copy-cat cases.

Detectives investigating the scare said that by Thursday night, there have been 220 reported instances of tainted baby food, up from 28 only a day before. New cases were reported throughout much of the British Isles, setting off ripples of anger and panic among parents from Dublin to Edinburgh.

At least five infants have been hospitalized after eating tainted food, but all are believed to have been released after doctors assured themselves that the children had not been seriously harmed.

No Area Spared

The new cases reported Thursday included more than a dozen in Scotland, five in Northern Ireland and two in the independent Republic of Ireland. The first instances revealed publicly had been centered in the southeast of the country, around London, although there were also some in Wales and the British Midlands.

“The real blackmailer or blackmail gang simply could not have got around all those places to contaminate food,” said one detective quoted by Britain’s domestic news agency, the Press Assn.

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Police said they know of two cases tied to a plot to extort 1 million pounds ($1.7 million) from H. J. Heinz Co. Ltd., the British subsidiary of the American firm. A dozen other instances of tampering are being checked for possible links to the extortioner, they added. However, said one, “if there are links established in more than a handful, we will be very surprised.”

The rest of the cases, they believe, are probably the work of “copy-cats, people getting on the bandwagon, cranks” and some cases of parents actually tampering with the food themselves just for the publicity.

Police said their investigation began in Leicestershire, northeast of Birmingham, last August when an extortioner threatened to contaminate the products of an unnamed company unless it paid him 1 million pounds.

They said the company put about 20,000 pounds ($34,000) in a bank account as part of a controlled police operation. But by last January, the extortionist had managed to withdraw almost all the money through cash machines without getting caught.

After the payments were stopped, a person believed to be the same extortioner demanded 1 million pounds from Heinz. Detectives say that to underline his demand, the extortioner contaminated one can of Heinz baby food with caustic soda and pins and another with eight pieces of a broken razor blade. The contaminated containers were discovered earlier this month.

Heinz confirmed Thursday that it had received an extortion threat but denied rumors that it had paid extortion money and vowed that it would not do so.

“This stance has been taken with the full agreement of the police with whom the company is working in closest cooperation,” according to a company statement.

A spokeswoman for Cow & Gate Ltd., a British baby food manufacturer which has also been subject to tampering, said that firm “has not received any threats of blackmail or threats of any other nature.”

Nevertheless, the two baby food firms have together offered a 100,000 pound ($170,000) reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for the contamination.

In addition to glass and pins, containers of baby food have been discovered in the last two days contaminated with needles, pieces of bone and a metal washer.

Home Office Minister John Patten said police have “considerable evidence” that the tampering is not occurring at the factories. He added that those responsible will be charged with attempted murder.

Police stressed that while most of the new cases may not be linked to the extortion scheme, parents are well advised to be on the alert. “People are genuinely finding contaminants in food,” said one detective.

‘Consumer Terrorism’

Patten referred to the scare as “consumer terrorism,” and one British newspaper branded the perpetrators “baby food beasts.”

Mandy Bentham said she “just panicked” when she discovered glass fragments in a jar of Cow & Gate’s spaghetti Bolognese dinner she was feeding her infant son, Kayne.

“They must be mentally ill,” she said of the tamperers. “It just terrified me to think someone tried to take my baby from me.”

Parents have been warned to check the seals on jars of baby food and to spoon the contents into a separate dish rather than feeding their infants directly from the container.

Heinz said it would not order a general recall of its products from supermarket shelves because that would not solve the problem.

‘Problem Would Reappear

“The problem would reappear at any future date on Heinz products or any other food products sold in grocery outlets,” according to the company statement. “Our energies are concentrated on assisting the police in apprehending a criminal who is prepared to put babies’ lives at risk.”

The company said that the contamination incidents reported so far represent a tiny percentage of its total annual sales of 170 million containers of baby food. However, it added, “the current threat against ourselves and other food companies has to be stopped. If not there is a real risk that this sort of problem will spread industry-wide.”


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