An expert on drug-trafficking says the seizure of a large amount of illicit drugs in a shipping container of Fonterra milk powder in Algeria is an unusual case.
A New Zealand Customs Service official has been sent to Algeria to investigate reports that local authorities have seized 165kg of cocaine or heroin from a container belonging to the dairy co-operative.
The drug haul is reported as one of the biggest-ever intercepted in the North African country, an important market for the New Zealand dairy industry and worth $346 million.
The Customs Service said the shipment passed through Port Otago and Port of Tauranga, then through Panama and Valencia in Spain where it sat on the docks for 24 days.
Hugh Griffiths, who advises governments on the illegal shipping of drugs and weapons, says a narcotics shipment would more usually be unloaded at Valencia, Spain.
"It's unusual where it's been seized. Spain is a point of entry," he says, "Algeria just doesn't have a large enough market to sustain that kind of volume. Somebody has made a mistake somewhere."
Mr Griffiths says the drugs were probably put into the container when the ship it was on passed through Panama.
"More often than not, these narcotics or arms are put in the container prior to its initial departure. Of course, New Zealand is not known for being a producer country for either heroin or cocaine - so it's kind of unusual."
Customs' trade and marine group manager Paul Campbell said on Wednesday said he is sure that the drugs were not hidden in the container while it was in New Zealand, but it could have been tampered with at any point on its several-month-long journey before being seized at Port Algiers.
Shipping company 'unaware until media reports'
The shipping company that carried the container says it learned about the case through the media.
In a written statement to Radio New Zealand on Thursday, the Mediterranean Shipping Company says it knew nothing about the situation until it was reported.
The company says it understands the matter is under investigation, but has not been informed of any of the details of the inquiry.
A company spokesperson says Mediterranean Shipping will not be making any further comment until the investigation is complete.