Police rushed to an island near New Zealand's biggest city Tuesday after the prime minister received a letter claiming foot-and-mouth disease had been spread among thousands of livestock there, though officials said it probably was a hoax.
An outbreak of the livestock disease in New Zealand could devastate the country's agriculture-dependent economy, and Senior Agriculture Ministry official Barry O'Neil said the letter was "probably a hoax, but is being taken very seriously."
The letter, which was delivered to Prime Minister Helen Clark's office on Tuesday, said a vial of foot-and-mouth disease was released Monday among stock on Waiheke Island, a small farming community near the northern city of Auckland.
Police said the letter demanded a ransom and a change in the country's tax policy.
The "nature of the letter" indicated it was likely a hoax, said one of New Zealand's most senior police officers, Assistant Commissioner Peter Marshall, but he declined to elaborate.
He said the letter also threatened to release the disease at another location in New Zealand. He did not disclose the location.
New Zealand has never had a confirmed case of foot and mouth. About half of its economy is based on agriculture and analysts believe a foot-and-mouth outbreak would affect a broad range of the nation's annual 30 billion New Zealand dollars (US$22 billion; Ђ17 billion) of exports.
Within 90 minutes of the scare going public, the New Zealand dollar dropped to U$0.7284 from US$0.7323.
Foot-and-mouth disease is a highly contagious viral disease that affects cloven-hoofed animals like cattle, sheep and pigs. It causes sores, blisters and fever. It is deadly for livestock but harmless to people.
O'Neil said experts in exotic diseases were flying to the island along with police. Officials restricted the movement of livestock to and from the island, and informed overseas markets of the incident.
Waiheke Island has 2,500 cattle and 18,000 sheep on its farms. New Zealand has 40 million sheep and about 20 million cattle.
The animals on Waiheke will be inspected every 48 hours until officials can rule out they have been infected, O'Neil said, adding that the process could take up to two weeks. Waiheke farmer Neville Dick said that "will be quite a big exercise."
Agriculture Minister Jim Sutton said he doesn't believe New Zealand's export markets will ban its farm products merely because of the scare, but that if the claim of a deliberate release proves true it would be "very damaging."
"New Zealand is still absolutely free of foot-and-mouth disease ... except for the faint possibility (of it) on one small island," he told National Radio.
National farm lobby group Federated Farmers expressed shock over "the malicious threat."
RAY LILLEY, Associated Press Writer