AGRICULTURE officials in New Zealand are investigating claims Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) has been released on Waiheke Island, off the coast of Auckland.
A letter was sent to the Prime Minister Helen Clark claiming the disease had been released.
Biosecurity officials restricted movement of livestock and risk materials like hay and farm equipment while the claim was investigated.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) New Zealand said the letter was probably a hoax but all precautions were being made to determine the authenticity of the claim.
Police have been called in to try and find out who wrote the letter.
Six veterinarians, two specialist exotic disease investigators and three media liaison staff were working on the island.
Checkpoints had been established at the two main ferry terminals and nine police officers supported MAF staff.
Efforts focused on the 12 largest properties because they held the greatest numbers of stock and posed the greatest risk of spread.
MAF vets will be made appointments with Waiheke farmers to observe livestock for possible signs of FMD.
All stock will be checked every 48 hours for 14 days, the longest possible incubation period for FMD before clinical symptoms appeared.
More than 50 of NZ¹s trading partners, including major member countries of the European Union, were informed of the situation.
Major trading partners the US, Canada and the EU have offered assistance.
The World Animal Health Organisation (OIE) had been informed and MAF was working with the farming industry to address concerns.
Farmers and vets were asked to be vigilant and keep a close eye on their cattle for signs of disease.
Pigs had the greatest risk of spreading the disease but there were few pigs on Waiheke Island.
It had 2500 cattle and 18,000 sheep.
MAF still regarded New Zealand as FMD free.
FMD is and unwanted organism under the Biosecurity Act 1993 with anyone convicted of spreading it facing a penalty of up to five years imprisonment or a fine up to $100,000.
Under the Crimes Act anyone convicted of threatening to commit a crime that would cause major damage to the economy can be sentenced to seven years jail.
Section 298A stipulates that anyone causing disease or sickness to animals can be sentenced to up to ten years in jail.