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Product Tampering

Product Tampering

Product tampering is the deliberate contamination of goods after they have been manufactured. It is often done to alarm consumers or to blackmail a company. The individual involved may have mental health problems or be politically motivated. Investigation of product tampering often involves forensic toxicology to discover the nature and timing of the contamination. Psychological profiling of the perpetrator may also prove useful. Both tampering itself and threatening to tamper are criminal offences, as is claiming tampering has occurred when it has not. Although there have been few deaths from tampering, compared to the number of complaints about it, the potential for spreading fear and doing actual physical harm to large numbers of people is great.

As consumers, trust is put in companies to provide safe foods, beverages, and medicines. Occasionally errors are made during manufacture and a harmful substance is added to a product, such as Sudan 1, the illegal dye that turned up in over 160 food products in the United Kingdom in 2005. When this happens, retailers generally remove the product from their shelves and issue prompt warnings to customers. Even so, consumer confidence is impacted and the manufacturer and retailer may suffer financially. With product tampering, contamination is done deliberately and generally to goods that are already in circulation. It is then up to a forensic investigation team to trace the source and nature of the contamination before people are harmed.

A wide variety of contaminants have been found in products that have been tampered with. Mice, syringes, cyanide, needles, liquid mercury, and glass have all turned up in a wide range of goods. The forensic laboratory must take a look at the physical and chemical nature of the contaminant using a range of techniques. If the contaminant is an organic compound, then infrared spectroscopy and either gas or liquid chromatography in conjunction with mass spectrometry can rapidly provide an identity. Chromatography experiments against an uncontaminated sample, in the case of a soft drink, for example, will reveal the proper composition of the product. Extra components could be contaminants and these will be analyzed more closely. Inorganic contaminants, such as acids or sodium hydroxide (lye), can be examined with techniques such as atomic absorption, which can show the elements involved.

The lab will then carry out more tests to find out when the tampering occurred, as this will help the search for the perpetrator. A contaminant may change chemically once inside the product, and analysis may show how long it has been there. Rarely, a disenchanted employee will contaminate a product during manufacture. More often, however, the perpetrator interferes with the product when it is on the shelf of the retailer's, or once it is in circulation. Most big supermarkets have video cameras , so if the store where the tampering took place can be found out through investigation of the packaging and its contents, it may be possible to identify a perpetrator in the act on camera.

Probably the most famous case of product tampering occurred in 1982 when seven people died in Chicago after ingesting capsules of the pain reliever Tylenol® laced with cyanide. Autopsies showed cyanide poisoning but, at first, no one could see the connection between the victims. Then it turned out they had all purchased a pack of Extra-Strength Tylenol®. These had been contaminated with cyanide. Psychological profilers were fascinated by the case, because this was a new kind of crime, with no apparent motive. As the victims were random and probably unknown to the attacker, it was a crime involving great psychological distance probably motivated by rage at society and seeking power through the fear generated by the tamperings. Naturally, the crimes aroused great public anxiety, for anyone could become a victim at any time. Yet the incidents stopped as suddenly as they began and no one was ever arrested or convicted. However, one man was imprisoned after trying to blackmail the manufacturers of Tylenol®.

There must, however, be a large psychological element to product tampering, because the publicity surrounding the 1982 Tylenol poisonings triggered a wave of other attacks. Many of these turned out to be fake or staged tamperings, often carried out by attention-seeking individuals. Sometimes criminals have sought to defraud companies by blackmail with threats of tampering. There have been 20 arrests in connection with such threats in the U.S., but no one was injured as no tampering took place. Some suicides have tried to cover up the true nature of their death by staging a tampering.

Publicity about tampering in the media also leads to an increase in reports of suspect tampering. That is, a consumer reports packaging that appears to have been interfered with, or links a symptom they experience with possible contamination of a product. Most of these complaints prove unfounded although they must, of course, be investigated.

In 1984, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA ) began to compile figures on tampering. Unlike other crimes, where rates either increase, decrease, or stay steady, the rate of tampering is linked to the publicity about a specific case. In early 1984, pins and needles were found in cookies meant for a group of young girl scouts and reports of tampering went up from 20 to 200 in the following month. Once press coverage died down, the rate fell to 10 incidents reported a month. There was another fatal Tylenol poisoning in Westchester in February 1986 and, again, the reports of other tamperings went up to 326 a month. Later that month, there was huge publicity when glass was found in baby food. The next month, reports of tampering reached an all time high of 456. It was in 1987 and 1988 when there were no publicized incidents that reports fell to an all time low. Some experts suggest that publicity should be minimized in cases of tampering but, of course, the public has to be warned and, indeed, may have valuable information that could lead to the perpetrator.

In another famous case, murder was staged to look like tampering. Sue Snow collapsed suddenly and died in 1986 at her home in Seattle. It looked like a drug overdose, but the only medication she had been taking was Excedrin, a normally safe painkiller. During autopsy , however, the pathologist noted the telltale odor of almonds around the corpse, suggesting cyanide poisoning. Toxicology tests revealed its presence. As with the 1982 Tylenol case, all packs of Excedrin had to be removed from the shelves of drugstores across the country. The police found two other contaminated bottles, one in Auburn, WA and one in nearby Kent, WA.

This proved to be no random case of product tampering, however. A few days later, Stella Nickell told police her husband had also died suddenly after taking Excedrin. His death certificate gave cause of death as emphysema. The police would have exhumed Bruce Nickell's body, save that a blood sample had been retained because he was a registered organ donor. Toxicological investigation showed that he had died of cyanide poisoning. Nearly 250,000 Excedrin capsules were examined by the Food and Drug Administration in an attempt to find a link between the two victims. Five contained cyanide and two of them were in the possession of Stella Nickell. The finding of another chemical contaminant in the capsules, an algicide used to clean fish tanks, suggested her guilt when a fish tank was discovered on her premises. Other evidence helped to convict Nickell, who is now serving a 99 year prison term for murder.

Product tampering could, of course, be a potent tool for terrorists. There have been various incidents and hoaxes involving a number of groups such as animal rights activists, extreme religious groups, and others. In 1978, for instance, a Palestinian group told the Dutch government it was responsible for injecting mercury into citrus fruits from Israel. These turned up in The Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Germany, and Sweden. Investigation suggested the poisoning had occurred at point of retail because the pattern of discoloration in the fruit was not consistent with it having occurred in Israel. No one died, but a dozen were affected by mercury poisoning and Israeli orange exports fell 40% as fruit sales plummeted all throughout Europe.

Following the Tylenol incidents, over-the-counter drugs have been sold in tamper-proof packaging. This may deter the impulsive criminal, but those bent on spreading harm and anxiety could find a way around the packaging. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently expressed some concern that Al Qaeda might tamper with the domestic food and drug supply and may find a way of specifically targeting illegally imported prescription drugs. The FDA has a special unit dedicated to the forensic investigation of product tampering. Recent incidents included the contamination of baby food with ground castor beans, which contain the deadly poison ricin . In what may have been a hoax, a shipment of lemons from Argentina was said to be impregnated with an unspecified biological toxin. Nothing harmful, however, was found in the fruit on examination at border control.

see also Food supply; Toxins.

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Product Tampering

PRODUCT TAMPERING

PRODUCT TAMPERING, the unauthorized altering of a consumer product without the knowledge of the product's owner or eventual user, is almost always treated as a threat to human health or safety, because it typically changes the contents of ingested products, such as foods or drugs, in a harmful manner. An exception to this pattern is fraudulently decreasing the odometer settings on used automobiles in an effort to increase the apparent value of a vehicle to a prospective buyer. Product tampering began in the 1890s. An especially bad case was the cyanide poisoning of Bromo Seltzer containers. The worst case of product tampering in America in the twentieth century happened in Chicago in 1982, when poison placed in packages of Tylenol killed seven people. Congress responded with the Federal Anti-Tampering Act of 1983, making it a crime to tamper with products or to make false claims of tampering. Tampering motives have included revenge, financial gain, and publicity for various causes. Tampering incidents have triggered false reports and copycat cases, both of which occurred in 1993 in response to a fabricated story that syringes were found in Pepsi-Cola cans. To combat tampering, manufacturers use science and technology to generate "tamper-evident" packaging and DNA testing to identify suspected tamperers.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Kilmann, Ralph H., and Ian I. Mitroff. Corporate Tragedies, Product Tampering, Sabotage, and Other Catastrophes. New York: Praeger, 1984.

Logan, Barry. "Product Tampering Crime: A Review." Journal of Forensic Sciences 38 (1993): 918–927.

MonroeFriedman

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