/ 1 July 2003

Pick ‘n Pay shoppers ignore poison food scare

Pick ‘n Pay’s shares remained stable and its customers were in the aisles on Monday, despite a weekend announcement that certain products were being withdrawn due to threats of poisoning.

Chief executive Sean Summers said customer reaction to the extortion attempt that accompanied the threats had been ”overwhelming and very positive”.

And Pick ‘n Pay’s shares were trading at R13,60 late on Monday afternoon. This was up on Friday’s closing price of R13,56 and despite a short-lived dip to R13.

Meanwhile, police submitted the contents of a can from a Gauteng Pick ‘n Pay branch, possibly poisoned by the extortionist, to the police forensic laboratory in Pretoria for testing on Monday. Police spokesperson Superintendent Lungelo Dlamini said it hoped results would be available on Tuesday.

”Yes, we hope to have them today [Tuesday]. The investigating officer will phone me,” said spokesperson Superintendent Lungelo Dlamini

Summers said it was the first time in its 36-year history in the South African market that the chain had been the victim of extortion.

”Like all major corporations we may have to deal with ‘initiatives’ from people from time-to-time, but this is the first significant one,” Summers said.

Summers said the extortionist’s main aim was financial gain. Asked if he could say how much money the criminal was after he said: ”Maybe I shouldn’t even have said that [the demand was not for a substantial amount] …’substantial’ is a subjective word.”

However, the extortion campaign had cost a large amount in advertising, and the recall of every article of the three threatened items on Gauteng shelves. They are the 120g can of No Name Brand Portuguese sardines with the barcode 600-1007-007-263, Pick ‘n Pay Choice garlic flakes bottle (barcode 600-1007-096-441), and the 155g can of Lucky Star pilchards in chilli (barcode 501-082-1132-007).

Pick ‘n Pay decided to bring the public’s attention to the threats after a woman phoned its call centre on Friday saying she had experienced a ”strange taste” when she ate a sardine from a can of No Name Portuguese sardines bought at a West Rand store.

When she looked at the packaging she saw it was clearly marked with a pen as ”poisonous, do not consume, contact Pick ‘n Pay immediately”.

The woman was discharged from hospital on Monday having suffered only emotional distress, for which Pick ‘n Pay apologised, said Summers.

”In fact, she was back at her Pick ‘n Pay store on Sunday, shopping for groceries.”

The first threat came on May 13 when Pick ‘n Pay received a parcel by insured post containing one of each of the lines and a letter saying that the items had been poisoned and that unless instructions were followed, similar items would be placed in stores.

Summers said the extortionist clearly stated customers would not be harmed and, based on this, Pick ‘n Pay began a ”dialogue” regarding basic terms and conditions. This was on expert advice.

On June 10, the company received a 20-second phone call from the extortionist informing it of the exact location of a can of contaminated sardines that had been placed on a shelf at a Boksburg store.

The can was clearly marked as ”poisoned, do not consume contact Pick ‘n Pay”. It was immediately removed and sent for forensic analysis.

A Pick ‘n Pay spokesperson who asked not to be named said tests had confirmed that the contents of the tins which had been sent in the parcel had been poisoned.

Pick ‘n Pay had been asked not to reveal the toxin used, company CEO Sean Summers said on Monday.

The company was still waiting for the results of tests on a tin of sardines, one of which was eaten by the West Rand woman on Friday.

A letter received later informed Pick ‘n Pay of three similarly marked items placed in stores, but a search revealed nothing.

Summers said that until Friday, Pick ‘n Pay believed, because of statements made by the extortionist, that consumers would be harmed if it went to the public with the information.

”We were threatened … told that the public would be poisoned,” he said.

He said there was apparently no way the Post Office could trace the person who had insured the parcel sent in May, ”but we do have certain information from that [parcel],” he said.

Summers could not reveal more details about the extortionist or whether there was more than one person involved.

Summers said although the activities had been limited to two stores in Gauteng, the company wanted all customers in the province to immediately return any of the three items purchased at any Pick ‘n Pay store in Gauteng for a full credit.

He said Pick ‘n Pay would absorb the ”substantial” cost of the crisis, including added store security.

”We have been in the South African market for 36 years. Our customers have always come first. This won’t affect prices in the stores. We will take it on the chin,” he said. – Sapa