The illegal trade in nicotine sulphate through a Hamburg businessman has broadened into the biggest grocery product scandals in Germany in decades, according to daily Die Welt.
The paper reported that just one millilitre of the substance can be deadly, and Hamburg business Jost P. is thought to have imported the chemical illegally from India and China, later selling it mainly to gardening companies - who may have thought they were buying a safer substance.
Nicotine sulphate is cheaper and more effective than other legal chemicals used for disinfectant purposes, the Hamburger Abendblatt reported.
"We are investigating this violation of chemical and trademark laws,” police spokesman Andreas Schöpflin told the paper. Jost P. himself opted not to give a statement and has yet to be taken into custody.
Authorities suspect the poison was not used by companies that deal in foodstuffs. A company in Holland, however, used nicotine sulphate to disinfect henhouses. In that case, authorities seized 1.6 tonnes of the original 12 tonnes delivered, the sale of which brought in millions of dollars, the Hamburger Abendblatt reported.
Jost P. is believed to have delivered the deadly substance in other EU countries too, Die Welt reported, though it is still unclear where and in what quantities. The public prosecutor's office is currently investigating.
A search of the man's garage yielded mixtures of phytotoxins, or plant toxins. He has been accused of the illegal importation of pesticide poisons, having stored and relabelled them in a shipper from Altenwerder, where authorities found 19.4 tonnes of nicotine sulphate.
Poison warnings on the labels of the 200-litre barrels had been switched with those of a permitted substance, camouflaging the origin of the nicotine sulphate. Both his and the company of another person have been stripped of their licenses to trade pesticides.
In another case in 1996, a man was forced to kill millions of chickens from his farm henhouse because he had allowed the chemical to be sprayed to combat vermin. One employee became seriously ill. The man was convicted and forced to sell his hen farm.