Italians in `panettone' panic

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GIRLS IN Santa Claus suits handed out free Christmas cakes to the public in Milan, Rome and Naples yesterday to reassure consumers following a major public health scare.

Fears that animal rights activists may have poisoned Italy's supply of "panettone" as they are known, led to police seizing thousands of cakes from shops up and down the country.

Last week, two packages of the traditional candied-fruit-filled sponge sent to an Italian newsagency were found to be laced with a rat-poison that provokes internal haemorrhages.

The Animal Liberation Front claimed responsibility for injecting the poison into the Motta and Alemagna cakes. Both brands are owned by Nestle. The ALF accuses the Swiss multinational of genetically manipulating ingredients used in Italians' favourite Christmas dessert, in particular soya.

As the panettone panic spread throughout Italy the health ministry ordered spot checks. Nestle workers near Verona were told to stay at home. Some retail chains took Motta and Alemagna off the shelves "as a precautionary measure" and sales of the two brands plummeted.

An ALF spokesman said no other cakes had been poisoned. The scare is expected to cost Nestle millions of dollars.