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Last Updated: Thursday, 7 August, 2003, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Bad apple brewed cider plot
Scrumpy Jack cider
Bulmer's market-leading products were the saboteurs' target
A Birmingham brewing boss so jealous of his rival's success plotted to poison the production line of Bulmer's in an attempt to damage their business and reputation.

In a climate which had seen cider sales fall flat over recent years Michael Hancocks hired two accomplices.

Chemist Michael Gay and the boyfriend of Hancocks' daughter, Paul Harris, were recruited to produce the contaminant and hire a forklift truck driver with access to Bulmer's to spike the production line.

But the conspiracy turned sour when driver Russell Jordan, offered 16,000 by the would-be saboteurs, backed out at the last minute and called in police.

HP Bulmer - which makes the Strongbow, Woodpecker and Scrumpy Jack cider brands - hired security experts costing 154,000 to catch the conspirators as detectives carried out surveillance on the plotters.

'Considerable animosity'

Hancocks, 63, of Hafod Road, Hereford, pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud brewing giant HP Bulmer by introducing yeast-based contaminants into their products between August 2001 and April 2002.

If the plot had succeeded anyone drinking glasses of the contaminated cider would have suffered nausea and diarrhoea.

A court heard Hancocks had been the "instigator and prime mover" in the scheme after developing a "considerable degree of animosity" towards Bulmer's, the world's biggest cider producer.

The prosecution claimed he hoped to trigger a product recall to "teach them a lesson".

Hancocks said he had "merely wanted to achieve a degree of nuisance value" after being driven to desperation by the tough trading conditions his company faced.

The animosity arose over his belief Bulmer's had used a loophole to reduce its tax bills.

Michael Hancocks
I now realise I have been very foolish.
Michael Hancocks

Aston Manor Brewery, in which Hancocks had invested huge sums of his own money, had shunned the practice and suffered huge commercial losses as a result with a threat of job losses hanging over brewery staff.

His company, which produces Frosty Jack cider, had also lost out to the bigger firm on a lucrative contract with the Bookers Cash and Carry chain.

The rivalry was heightened by the slump in the cider market and Bulmer's continued domination, producing more than two-thirds of the 500 million litres of the drink sold every year in the UK .

The court heard of the astonishing fall from grace of a businessman who proudly boasts of his Herefordshire cider-making ancestry.

Hancocks is the fifth generation of his family involved in farming and cider-apple growing in the county.

He was one of the operational brains behind the creation of the Aston Manor company which rose from the ashes of the Ansells brewery.

As a hop-farmer he had supplied the brewery when it produced beer and his cash, along with that of Aston Villa chairman Doug Ellis, helped save the business.

It diversified into bottling drinks for other producers and making cider for sale in large plastic bottles sold at discount prices through supermarket chains.

Commercial losses

By 1998 cider accounted for 70% of its sales and it promoted itself as the UK's third biggest cider-maker with 7.5% of the takeaway market.

But by the time the sabotage plot was hatched, profits had fallen from 1.7m to 740,500.

While on bail the former director of Hereford United Football Club admitted: "I now realise I have been very foolish."

Hancocks remains as a shareholder of Aston Manor with 12% of its shares whilst his family retains 44% of the business.

Bulmer's was bought out by the Scottish and Newcastle brewing giant for 278m in April.

The company began 116 years ago when clergyman's son Percy Bulmer used apples from his father's Hereford orchard to make its first cider.

Cider rival's contamination plot
16 Apr 03  |  Hereford/Worcs
Man admits cider involvement
10 Apr 03  |  England

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