Messi primed to thwart Atletico’s title ambitions

It has been almost 20 years since the Spanish capital’s second club mounted a genuine challenge for the La Liga crown as Barca and Real Madrid, the world’s two richest teams by income, have shared the spoils apart from brief flurries of success from Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna.

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Last season’s third place was the best Atletico had managed since they won a league and King’s Cup double in 1996 and they even spent two seasons in the second division at the start of the millennium.

Current coach Diego Simeone, a former Argentina midfielder who was in the 1996 team, has revived memories of those glory days since he took over at the end of 2011, honing a mean defence and getting the best out of players like forward Diego Costa and midfielder Koke.

Atletico, the King’s Cup holders, have won all their matches at their Calderon stadium this season apart from the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup in August when they drew 1-1 with Barca.

Victory on Saturday (1900 GMT) would put them three points clear of the Catalan giants with half the season played, while Atletico’s city rivals Real Madrid are five points behind in third and play at Espanyol on Sunday (1800).

Koke, who earned a call-up to the Spain squad last year, has played a key role in Atletico’s resurgence, developing a lethal partnership with Costa and netting some important goals himself, including the winner in Saturday’s 1-0 victory at Malaga.

However, beating Barca to head the standings at the halfway stage of the campaign would be a mere “anecdote” as what counted was the state of play at the climax of the season in May, he warned on Wednesday.

“It is irrelevant if you win this match if in the end you have not achieved your objectives,” he told a news conference that coincided with his 22nd birthday.

PAIN FREE

One man who will be itching to spoil Atletico’s party is World Player of the Year Messi, who came off the bench and scored twice on his return from injury in Wednesday’s 4-0 last 16, first leg success at home to Getafe in the Cup.

Messi was given a rousing ovation by the adoring home fans when he replaced Andres Iniesta in the 64th minute at the Nou Camp, the Argentina forward’s first appearance since straining a thigh muscle in November.

The injury was the latest in a string of problems that dogged him during 2013 but he said he was now “free of pain” and full of desire to help Barca in their bid for La Liga, Champions League and King’s Cup glory.

“I am as excited as ever,” he told Barca’s TV channel after the Getafe game, adding that he would consult coach Gerardo Martino and club medical staff to decide if he can start against Atletico.

“Before I had got used to playing with pain and today… I felt very good physically,” the 26-year-old said.

“Beyond the injuries I just want to play again. If I can be in the team (on Saturday) I will be there.”

Real have their King’s Cup last 16, first leg at home to Osasuna to negotiate later on Thursday before they travel to Barcelona to face mid-table Espanyol, while Monday’s game sees European hopefuls Villarreal, in sixth, hosting fifth-placed Real Sociedad (2100).

(Editing by John O’Brien)

Postecoglou backs gay footballers

Socceroos boss Ange Postecoglou says he hopes gay Australian footballers would feel comfortable disclosing their sexuality if they wanted to.

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“What you want – in any form of life – particularly in our country, is that people feel comfortable to express themselves in any way they want to,” said Postecoglou on Thursday.

“If there is somebody that feels comfortable enough to do that – I don’t think as a society we’re closed-minded about these things.

“From our perspective, it’s about creating an environment that in our sport, in our nation, that allows people to feel comfortable in that space.”

Postecoglou was commenting after retired German international Thomas Hitzlsperger came out, announcing he is gay.

“I am declaring my homosexuality because I want the question of homosexuality in the world of professional sport to be out in the open,” said 31-year-old Hitzlsperger, who was capped 52 times by Germany between 2004 and 2010.

His statement came after he hung up his boots at the end of last season, having plied his trade in Germany, England and Italy with Aston Villa, Everton, Wolfsburg and Lazio among others.

Hitzlsperger said he had decided to come out because it was a good time for him and because he wanted to promote the discussion of homosexuality in professional sport.

“I’ve never been ashamed of the way I am,” he added, although it had not always been easy to cope with some of the comments dished out.

“In England, Germany or Italy, homosexuality is not taken seriously as an issue, at least not in the dressing room.”

His disclosure was met with strong support from the football community, including former teammates and clubs.

Arsenal and German forward Lucas Podolski called Hitzlsperger’s announcement, made in German magazine Die Zeit, “an important sign of our time”.

Ex-England captain Gary Lineker tweeted “Congratulations to Thomas Hitzlsperger on bravely being the first player to have played in the PL to ‘come out'” while former club Aston Villa also gave their support.

Aussie tennis stars sweat on Open draw

Local tennis stocks are at a nine-year high heading into next week’s Australian Open but, like the dollar, threaten to crash at any time.

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Such as at Friday’s draw when long-time blue-chip performer Lleyton Hewitt and volatile speculator Bernard Tomic will be very much at the mercy of the tennis gods despite hitting their straps on the eve of the season’s first grand slam.

Hewitt, fresh off his Brisbane International final triumph over four-time champion Roger Federer, and Tomic, into the semi-finals in his title defence at the Sydney International are both unseeded.

Australia’s two big men’s hopes could conceivably run smack bang into world No.1 Rafael Nadal, three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic or other front-line contenders Andy Murray or Federer in the first round at Melbourne Park.

Samantha Stosur, through to the last four at the Hobart International, is Australia’s only seed in the singles events this year, at No.17 in the women’s event.

The 2011 US Open champion has yet to venture beyond the fourth round in 11 visits to Melbourne and, after falling outside the top 10 for the first time since 2010, Stosur will also be hoping for some luck in the draw.

Without a top-eight seeding, Stosur could potentially meet world No.1 and raging title favourite Serena Williams in the first week.

With some good fortune, Australia’s three stars could all go deep after displaying some strong form in the lead-up.

Despite her well-documented home struggles, Stosur is seeded to make the title match in Hobart which, technically, would be the Queenslander’s fourth successive tournament final.

The 29-year-old reached three straight finals in Osaka, Moscow – where she lifted the Kremlin Cup – and Sofia to complete 2013 before opening her 2014 campaign at the Hopman Cup exhibition event.

Hewitt has climbed back to 43rd in the world after enjoying his first injury-free run in years, while Tomic has won five of his six matches this summer and revels playing on the big stages in Australia.

Not since 2005 when Hewitt was ranked No.2 in the world and ultimately made the final at Melbourne Park, and Alicia Molik was in the top 10 and charged to the quarter-finals, have Australian hopes been so high entering the Open.

“A lot of the players have been in really good form,” Stosur said on Thursday.

“Maybe that hasn’t happened so collectively for the last couple of years.

“I don’t know why maybe the change but it’s nice to be able to be part of that success and try keep boosting it along.

“I guess so far so good but I’m sure I can speak for all of us and say that we all want to definitely replicate it down in Melbourne.”

All up, Australia will have 15 representatives in the singles at Melbourne Park, with Marinko Matosevic, Matt Ebden, young guns Nick Kyrgios, James Duckworth and fellow wildcards Sam Groth and playoff winner Jordan Thompson also in the men’s draw.

Playoff winner Casey Dellacqua and fellow wildcards Ashleigh Barty, Storm Sanders, Jarmila Gajdosova and Olivia Rogowska join Stosur in the women’s event.

Rodriguez drops lawsuits with MLB, union

Embattled New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez on Friday dropped his lawsuits against Major League Baseball, including one seeking a dismissal of his 162-game doping suspension which will likely cost him $US25 million.

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The major lawsuit, also filed against the major league players’ union, was filed January 14 at US District Court in New York, two days after federal arbitrator Fredric Hororwitz upheld the one-season ban for 2014 against the 38-year-old superstar whose legacy has been tainted by drugs.

The other lawsuit was filed last year and accused major league officials of being on a “witch hunt” against Rodriguez.

Rodriguez was banned over evidence collected in the Biogenesis clinic doping scandal that was uncovered last year and led to the biggest doping scandal in baseball history, which saw 12 other players admit guilt and take lesser bans.

Major League Baseball imposed a harsher penalty against Rodriguez because he took measures to impede the investigation into the scandal and Horowitz upheld it on appeal, saying there was clear and convincing eveidence of doping and trying to obstruct the probe.

Rodriguez accused Horowitz of being partial in the league’s favour, but on Friday, the day Rodriguez was due to respond to the league and union wanting the case dismissed, Rodriguez pulled it himself.

“We have been informed that Alex Rodriguez has reached the prudent decision to end all of the litigation related to the Biogenesis matter,” a statement from Major League Baseball said.

“We believe that Mr. Rodriguez’s actions show his desire to return the focus to the play of our great game on the field and to all of the positive attributes and actions of his fellow major league players. We share that desire.”

A statement from the players union said Rodriguez had “done the right thing.”

While the 38-year-old standout could refile his lawsuit, the voluntary dismissal is likely the end of his efforts to fight the ban and could pave the way for his return in 2015 to fulfill the remaining years on his contract, a 10-year deal worth $US275 million signed in 2007 that is the richest in baseball history.

“A-Rod”, whose 654 career home runs are 108 shy of Barry Bonds’ all-time record, will lose $US25 million in salary from the Yankees this year, or about $US154,000 for every game missed.

Rodriguez, who in 2009 admitted that he took steroids while playing for the Texas Rangers from 2001 to 2003, would be 39 when he returns to play in 2015.

The Yankees could still go to court to argue that Rodriguez should not be paid the remaining $61 million on his deal from 2015-2017.

Oil prices hit 2014 peaks on US jobs data

Oil prices have rallied sharply as the market shrugged off a disappointing US jobs report, finding upbeat details in the report suggesting modest economic growth.

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The benchmark US futures contract, West Texas Intermediate for delivery in March, leaped $US2.04, or 2.1 per cent, to close at $US99.88 a barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange.

Brent North Sea crude for March gained $US2.69, or 2.5 per cent, to settle at $US109.57 a barrel on London’s Intercontinental Exchange.

Both futures contracts closed at their highest levels of the year to date.

Earlier in the day the US contract crossed above the psychological level of $US100.

The rally came after the Labor Department, for the second month in a row, reported disappointing jobs growth numbers for the world’s largest consumer of crude oil.

The US economy added only 113,000 jobs in January, after a paltry 75,000 in December, according to the department’s survey of business establishments.

That was well below analyst expectations of 175,000.

But a separate household survey showed the unemployment rate dropped for the third consecutive month, to 6.6 per cent from 6.7 per cent in December, driven down by job growth of 638,000.

And the labour force participation rate improved, though still at a historically low level, to 63.0 per cent.

The oil and equities markets rose sharply as investors digested the jobs data.

“Today’s jobs report delivers neither encouragement nor discouragement. It falls right smack in the middle of a slow recovery trend with relatively flat labour income,” said David Kotok of Cumberland Advisors.

Kotok said the slow-growing trend means the Federal Reserve will proceed slowly with the tapering of its massive stimulus that began in January.

“The soft growth in payrolls the past two months is not the start of a new weaker trend. We expect payroll gains to reaccellerate sometime in the next couple of months. The ploughhorse economy is still moving forward,” said FT Advisors in a research note.

Do new privacy protection laws go far enough?

(Transcript from World News Radio)

While millions of Australians log on each day to social media websites, are they fully aware of who can access their personal information both in Australia and overseas?

Who can they turn to if they feel their privacy has been breached?

And when they apply for a credit card or a home loan, do they know who can access their personal credit history and what information is being stored about them?

These are some of the questions being raised as new privacy laws are set to be introduced next month after being passed by federal parliament last November.

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As Michael Kenny reports, some civil libertarians and privacy advocates believe the new laws don’t go far enough to protecting the rights of consumers in the digital era.

Under the new laws, to be introduced next month, large organisations and agencies that collect personal data would be required to take reasonable steps to notify consumers about the collection and why they are collecting it.

Individuals will also be able to request access to their personal information held by large organisations and agencies and request a correction to that personal information.

Large organisations that send personal data overseas would also be bound by new principles requiring them to take reasonable steps to ensure the data is used in a responsible way.

The Australian Council of Civil Liberties says the laws needed to be updated to recognise the growth of social media websites over recent years where many users are posting personal information about themselves online.

The President of the Council’s New South Wales branch, Stephen Blanks, says it is critical for privacy laws to keep pace with the latest developments in information technology.

“Consumers really need to be given the right to control how information about them is used and sold. These laws will go some way towards that- perhaps more will need to be done to do with social media. But these laws are a good first step.”

The new laws also include more comprehensive credit reporting which will allow the reporting of information about an individual’s credit history over the previous two years to credit providers.

Individuals who fail to make loan or credit card payments on time, may struggle to obtain credit in the future as a result of the changes.

The Australian Privacy Foundation says it welcomes some key aspects of the new laws which it believes will help to strengthen consumers’ rights.

It is particularly pleased with the move to grant individuals the right to request information from large organisations that hold personal information.

It says this may allow consumers to submit requests to large companies like Facebook and Google, allowing them to find out how much personal information they are holding on them and whether they have passed on that information to other parties.

It is unclear at this stage whether large companies may request a fee from consumers to access this information.

Privacy Foundation board member, Associate Professor Katina Michael believes the new laws covering personal data could fail if companies send information to countries with weak privacy laws and regulations.

“Maybe I’m thinking idealistically here, but I’d love for my personal data to at least go to a country abroad, if it is to go to a country at all, where there is some sort of agreement or treaty or some formulated protocol of how that data is to be handled.”

Dr Michael, who lectures in information technology at the University of Wollongong, believes small businesses should not have been exempted from the new privacy laws.

“I think when you look at the makeup of Australia’s businesses- 80 per cent of Australia’s businesses are small businesses hiring a quarter of Australia’s population. Then you’ve got to think, the modern day capability of working with computing- it doesn’t really matter if you’re a small business- you can reach out globally, you have the ability to generate revenue, you have the ability to work with large players in the industry and sometimes these third parties who are actually on the back of these large organisations- they’re not larger than ten persons- they’re very small organisations that for their size are punching above their weight. So I think all organisations whether it’s small, medium or large, need to play by the same rules.”

That’s a view shared by the Executive Director of the consumer lobby group, Electronic Frontiers Australia, John Lawrence.

“The reach of the Privacy Act isn’t broad enough. It really only applies to, in general, large organisations with annual turn-overs of three million dollars or more. There are some exceptions to that in terms of people who deal with credit reporting and other sensitive information. But that’s a kind of general concern that we have about the privacy regime is that it just doesn’t capture the vast majority of organisations and businesses in the country.”

Stephen Blanks from the NSW Council for Civil Liberties takes a different view.

He believes it makes sense to exempt small businesses because they have more limited budgets.

But Mr Blanks says the new laws should have gone further in the social media area.

“People do need to be given a statutory right to be able to delete material that they have posted on social media. At the moment, that right doesn’t exist. I think there are ways in which foreign based social media organisations can be required to comply with Australian law. Google and Facebook and a lot of the other companies have got a business presence in Australia, they’re taking money from businesses in Australia and so they should be required to comply with Australian laws for the products and services that they provide.”

John Lawrence from Electronic Frontiers Australia believes there are a number of positive changes in the new privacy laws, including enhanced powers for the Australian Information Commissioner.

These expanded powers would give the commissioner the power to seek civil penalties in the case of serious or repeated breaches of privacy and seek penalties of up to 1.7 million dollars.

Mr Lawrence believes this should act as a powerful deterrent.

“Some of the penalties are certainly increased significantly which we would hope would start to create the incentive for organisations to put privacy and to put information security as well at the core of their operational practices which is where it really needs to belong.”

But Australian Privacy Foundation board member Dr Katina Michael is more sceptical about the planned penalties, claiming the fines may not go far enough in deterring big profit-making companies.

“I don’t want to cast all doubt on the new amendments, but let’s see some action. Let’s see some action from today onwards. The bill is no longer a bill now. The amendments are through and let’s see the enforcement occurring by the Privacy Commissioner and if I see that action, I’ll say ‘Well that’s great! The commissioner’s powers have been increased and they are actually utilising those powers.”

The new rules will apply to all personal information that a large organisation or agency holds records for on 12 March and not just new information collected after the laws are introduced.

TV highlights for Sun, Feb 9

RAKE – ABC1, 8.

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30pm

The twisted world of Cleaver Greene (Richard Roxburgh) makes its triumphant and much anticipated return on Sunday for the third series of critically-acclaimed black comedy Rake. On Sunday’s episode, the Sydney barrister is still behind bars after being accused of murdering Lane Hole’s (Phil Lloyd) elderly neighbour. And while there are many in the lock-up who would love to have Cleaver killed, cellmate Malcolm (Dan Wyllie) is turning out to be an invaluable bodyguard, despite his amorous advances. While Cleaver prepares for his appeal, a grisly turn of events make his situation even more complicated. A stellar start to the season.

MY KITCHEN RULES – SEVEN, 6.30pm

Season five of this staggeringly popular cooking competition has kicked off, sating the appetites of millions around the country. Fittingly, the series – which has a knack for finding larger-than-life characters – is brimming with a bunch of new contestants, who have specifically been picked to get under each other’s skin and make dishing up that delicious entree just that little bit more stressful. When you have a group of competitive strangers eating your food in your home, even the friendly faces of hosts and judges Manu Feildel and Pete Evans can’t offer much reassurance. After all, the contestants’ hopes rest on their judgment. Dramatic stuff.

SOCHI TONIGHT – TEN, 6.00pm

If the heat of summer is making you a bit hot under the collar, tuning in to the Winter Olympic Games might prove to be a welcoming breath of cool air. As athletes from around the world strut their stuff in their chosen sports in snow-covered Sochi, here we are with our togs at hand and a cool drink not far away. In fact, it’s something of a novelty as hosts Stephen Quartermain and former gold-medal skier Alisa Camplin give us their ultimate guide to the Winter Games. Featuring previews of the upcoming events and competitors, with live coverage of the qualifying rounds, you’ll marvel at the talent on show – and how small our world really has become.

MANNEQUIN (1987) – ABC2, 12.25am

This is a cheesy romantic-comedy variation of Pinocchio that stars Andrew McCarthy (in a follow-up role to Pretty in Pink) as a young, unemployed artist and mannequin-maker, who builds a dummy so lifelike that he falls in love with it. Via some strange occurrence, the mannequin comes to life in the form of Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall. There’s as much fun to be had in mocking the fashions of the time as there is in the story.

SHANGHAI NOON (2000) – 7MATE, 6.30pm

The absolute antithesis of Wild, Wild West, this western-comedy makes no bones about the fact that it’s played purely for laughs. The plot, which could have been written on the back of a can of beans, may be a take-off of the classic Vera Cruz, but no matter, it’s still harmless fun all the way. As Chon Wang (John Wayne, get it?), Jackie Chan gets to display far more of his martial arts skills in a Hollywood context than he could in the Rush Hour films, while his partner in spurs, Owen Wilson (Midnight in Paris), knows precisely when to quip one-liners and when to let Chan steal the show.

AMERICAN PIE (1999) – 7MATE, 8.50pm

An undeniably crude but extremely funny flick that follows the fortunes of four high school friends who make a pact to lose their virginity by prom night. Forget the pastry antics of central protagonist Jason Biggs, the real laughs come from his painfully understanding father (Eugene Levy) and the vulgar interjections of his jock buddy Stifler (Seann William Scott). What sets it apart from 90 per cent of other teen comedies is that the brotherly directorial team Paul and Chris Weitz actually make you care for the characters, no matter how stereotyped or outlandish they might be. A prime example of success with stupidity.

SCARY MOVIE 2 (2001) (MA15+) – 7MATE, 10.50pm

Unashamedly gratuitous, gleefully incoherent and occasionally funny, this film wedges countless crass jokes and cinematic parodies into the disjointed story of seven university students (led by Anna Faris), who are enticed into a dubious paranormal experiment in a haunted house. Once there, they meet up with the caretaker (Chris Elliott), a frisky ghost with commitment phobia, and a possessed toy clown who probably wishes he had stayed in the toy box. However, the highlight of this lacklustre effort is a reputation-staining cameo from James Woods as a twisted priest.

CROCODILE DUNDEE (1986) – GO!, 6.00pm

Australia’s biggest overseas success can still give viewers a buzz thanks to Paul Hogan’s extremely funny slice of outback character. Linda Kozlowski is a visiting Yank reporter doing a piece on life Down Under, teaming up with Hogan’s croc hunter, “Mick” Dundee, who shows her an otherworldliness of adventure and romance. When she returns to the Big Apple with Mick, he gets a bit of culture shock too, but thankfully he can rely on his outback skills in any situation. A beaut.

SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003) – ELEVEN, 8.30pm

Jack Black’s inspired and energetic performance, a razor-sharp script from Mike White and the astute direction of Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, A Scanner Darkly) ensures this is a winner. As a rock-obsessed slacker, Black drums up plenty of laughs as he assumes the identity of his teacher roommate and decides to shape a class of private school kids into rock gods. Funny, without being gross, sweet without resorting to sentimentality, this will strike a chord with the whole family, and the AC/DC-led closing credits sequence is fantastic.

Stars attend private funeral for Hoffman

A-list stars Meryl Streep and Cate Blanchett have joined hundreds of mourners at the private funeral of Oscar-winning actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, who died of an apparent heroin overdose.

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Actors Ethan Hawke, Joaquin Phoenix, Julianne Moore and Michelle Williams – the former girlfriend of Heath Ledger, who also died of an overdose – also braved the New York chill to attend.

The 46-year-old Hoffman, who appeared in dozens of films and was hailed by many as the finest character actor of his generation, was found dead on Sunday at his rented Manhattan apartment.

The service, closed to members of the press and the public, lasted for around an hour and a half at the imposing Church of St Ignatius Loyola on Park Avenue in Manhattan.

A black hearse drove up to the imposing entrance of the church and pall bearers carried the coffin up the steps at midday watched by Hoffman’s partner Mimi O’Donnell and their three children.

O’Donnell carried the couple’s youngest child, five-year-old Willa, in her arms. Their eldest, 10-year-old son Cooper, wore a white shirt and tie and stood alongside his mother.

On the way out of the church, seven-year-old daughter Tallulah tried to hide behind her mother as if to avoid the long lenses of the photographers camped on the opposite side of the street.

Dozens of cameramen and reporters lined the road outside the church, which also held the 1994 funeral of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the wife of assassinated US president John F Kennedy.

A public memorial service is expected at the end of the month.

Hoffman won an Oscar in 2006 for his portrayal of author Truman Capote in Capote and earned three further Academy Award nominations as best supporting actor in 2008, 2009 and 2013.

The results of an autopsy on Hoffman’s body on Monday were inconclusive and medical examiners are awaiting the results of further tests to determine the precise cause of his death.

Police said Hoffman was found with a needle in his arm, and there were 50 envelopes of heroin, syringes and other pills in the apartment.

Three people have been arrested and charged as part of the investigation into Hoffman’s death.

The actor, who struggled with fame and addiction, admitted to falling off the wagon in 2012, after two decades of sobriety, starting with prescription pills and escalating to heroin use.

He was last seen on Saturday and O’Donnell raised the alarm when he failed to show up to see his children as planned early on Sunday.

She was quoted by US media as saying he was high when she last saw him and spoke with him on Saturday.

Hoffman had been cast as game master Plutarch Heavensbee in the final two instalments of the blockbuster Hunger Games series but had one final week of filming and a crucial scene to finish.

The Hollywood Reporter quoted a source close to the project as saying there are plans “that don’t seem very complicated” to complete both pictures without Hoffman.

“You can do digital things, you can have conversations where you’re not focusing on him but the people he’s talking to,” the source was quoted as saying.

Rob Legato, a veteran effects supervisor, said technology is most likely good enough to generate a convincing image of Hoffman, though some scenes might need to be rewritten.

“I won’t say you could generate a Philip Seymour Hoffman with all the acting ability, but you could certainly replicate him for a shot or two,” he was quoted as saying by the Reporter.

* The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1, starring Hoffman, releases in Australia on Nov 20.

Japan food probe widens as 1,400 sick

A probe into pesticide-laced frozen food in Japan has widened, with police interviewing factory workers assigned to a packaging room, reports say, as the number who have fallen sick reportedly topped 1,400.

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The country’s consumer affairs minister has condemned the manufacturer of the tainted items, a subsidiary of Maruha Nichiro Holdings, Japan’s largest seafood firm, saying they were slow to bring the matter to public attention.

At least 1,400 people nationwide have complained of illness – most displaying mild symptoms of vomiting, cramps and diarrhoea – after eating the suspect products, according to the latest tally compiled by Kyodo News and issued on Wednesday.

The company, called Aqlifoods, received the first of a series of complaints on November 13, with a customer saying a frozen pizza smelled like machine oil.

But the firm did not announce a product recall until December 29, after tests found traces of a chemical called malathion, which is used as a pesticide and to treat head lice.

“For so long, information was withheld. The government cannot take action without reports from businesses,” Consumer Affairs Minister Masako Mori told Aqlifoods president Yutaka Tanabe in their meeting on Wednesday.

The health ministry had acknowledged 1,047 cases of food poisoning from the tainted food as of Wednesday, but local public health centres and Aqlifoods continued to receive reports of possible further incidents.

Investigators suspect that the toxin may have been deliberately added during production at a factory in Gunma, north of Tokyo, according to local press.

Police have started to interview workers there, with a particular focus on the 81 staff assigned to the packaging room, where various frozen foods are dealt with, the daily Asahi said on Thursday.

But some operatives have cast doubt on the idea that this was the source of contamination, pointing out that they work close to one another and their uniforms do not have pockets, making it difficult for them to hide the use of a smelly chemical, the paper said.

Food safety standards are generally high in Japan, and companies that fall short of public expectations often find that the reputational damage lasts for years.

Aqlifoods has recalled 6.4 million potentially tainted products, with 1.8 million packages recovered by Tuesday. None of the products in question had been shipped overseas, the company said.

Qld ‘bikie associates’ bail bid delayed

Two accused outlaw motorcycle gang associates jailed for allegedly meeting in a pub will have to wait at least another five days to find out whether they will be released on bail.

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Joshua Carew, 30, and Paul Lansdowne, 56, were among five accused Rebels bikie gang associates arrested and jailed a month ago after allegedly meeting in a Sunshine Coast hinterland pub on November 1.

They were charged under the Newman government’s anti-bikie laws which make it an offence for participants in declared criminal organisations to gather in public.

All five applied to the Brisbane Magistrates Court for bail last month but only two were granted release.

Carew and Lansdowne re-applied for bail on Thursday, this time in the Supreme Court.

Lansdowne’s application was adjourned until Tuesday to allow his defence team access to CCTV footage of the alleged incident.

Justice John Byrne reserved his decision on Carew, saying he hoped to have an answer by Tuesday.

Outside court Carew’s wife Tracy said her husband would be devastated to learn he will spend at least another five days in prison.

“(I) feel a little bit deflated at the moment that they’re going to spend another five days in solitary (confinement) which is really hard,” she told reporters through tears.

“But we’ll keep fighting and hopefully I’ll be able to talk to him on the phone and maybe get a visit … I haven’t seen him for like a month now so it’s really difficult.”

Prisoners with bikie links are being held in cells for 23 hours per day and face visitor restrictions as part of the government’s crackdown on bikies.

Carew’s barrister Robert Butler said his client was given a fair hearing and it was reasonable for Justice Byrne to take time to consider the matter.

Earlier in court Mr Butler challenged allegations that Carew had sought to associate himself with the Rebels and had trafficked amphetamines with gang members.

“He’s never had a drink at the Sunshine Coast Rebels clubhouse, he’s never attended any function there, he’s never sought to be a member or a nominee [and] doesn’t even have a Harley-Davidson,” Mr Butler said.

Crown Prosecutor David Meredith told the hearing the new laws cover not just formal gang members but people who seek to be associated with the Rebels.

Telephone calls intercepted by police showed that Carew had attended the Rebels clubhouse and at the time of his arrest had been on bail charged with trafficking drugs with Rebels members, Mr Meredith said.

The five, who include Dan Whale, Steven Smith and Scott Conley, face a minimum of six months’ imprisonment if found guilty of being participants in a criminal organisation and being knowingly present in public places with two or more people who are participants.

They were taken into custody on December 10 after allegedly drinking together in the Yandina Hotel.