Product Tampering

views updated May 21 2018

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.

Product Tampering

views updated May 18 2018

Product Tampering

The Tylenol Scare


By: Anonymous

Date: 1982

Source: Corbis Corporation.


About the Photographer: Associated Press Worldwide

Date: 1982

Source: Associated Press Worldwide Photographs.

About the Photographer: The Associated Press (AP), one of the world's largest news acquisition and distribution organizations, is owned by a group of more than 1,500 newspapers. It utilizes multiple media resources, ranging from digital and visual film and photography to radio reports and written articles appearing in newspapers or electronic media. In addition, AP maintains an extensive archival collection of photographs.


Prior to 1982, when seven people in Illinois died after ingesting Extra-Strength Tylenol capsules that had been treated with a cyanide compound, few in the general population was familiar with the concept of product tampering. The adulterated capsules came from four different production lots (MC2880, MA1891, MB2738, and MD1910). Victims purchased the over-the-counter (OTC) medications from five different stores in the greater Chicago area; two additional cyanide-tainted Extra-Strength Tylenol bottles were recovered unopened from a sixth store. The police investigation of the murders concluded that the medication bottles had each been previously removed from the stores and opened. The capsules they contained were treated with the cyanide compound, and then the bottles were resealed and returned to store shelves over a period of weeks or months before the first poisoning and death occurred. The number of cyanide-laced capsules varied from bottle to bottle; in no case were the entire contents of a bottle poisoned. In each of the bottles recovered after the deaths, the adulterated capsules had been completely emptied of their original contents and refilled with the cyanide mixture.

Although there was an enormous amount of publicity and media attention given to these murders, no perpetrator was ever arrested or indicted for the crimes. Several "copycat" product tamperings, resulting in additional deaths, occurred over the next decade. Three of those took place in 1986 and involved Excedrin, Lipton Cup-A-Soup, and Tylenol. Additional episodes occurred in 1991 with Sudafed and in 1992 with Goody's Headache Powder.

As a direct result of the 1982 Extra-Strength Tylenol poisonings, legislation was enacted that mandated tamper-proof packaging for most over-the-counter medications and some cosmetic products. The Poison Prevention Packaging Act, originally passed in 1970, provides a series of guidelines and requirements for products that are likely to be stored in the average American household. It is designed to protect the safety of all individuals, but is particularly geared to children. It is designed to safely contain items such as cleaning products, assorted chemicals designed to be used in the home or immediate outside environment, and various types of household fuels. It also applies to safety packaging for certain foods, prescribed and over-the-counter medications, and some cosmetics.



See primary source images.


Subsequent to the Extra-Strength Tylenol and copycat product-tampering murders, much media attention was focused on ensuring that the over-the-counter medications purchased by the public were safe. As a result, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) required that tamper-resistant packaging regulations be mandated and implemented for all over-the-counter, and some cosmetic, preparations. The exceptions to this requirement include skin products (lotions, creams, some ointments), items used for dental care (tooth-pastes, dental floss, and various dental adhesives), and insulin containers.

In contrast to the colloquial use of the term, the FDA interprets the term "cosmetic" to mean a substance generally considered desirable, but that is neither medically prescribed nor deemed absolutely essential for the adequate maintenance of good health or for the purposes of ensuring personal hygiene. Substances such as mouthwash, non-prescribed douches, and vaginal deodorants are all considered cosmetics by the Food and Drug Administration.

Each product subject to the tamper-resistant packaging requirement must be labeled to indicate that it has tamper-resistant packaging. This packaging must be immediately visible when the container is inspected. The package must also carry an illustrated statement describing the nature and appearance of the tamper-resistant features. The labeling must be designed to remain intact if the product is, in fact, interfered with in any way—so that it is immediately obvious to the consumer that this interference has occurred.

The FDA suggests that two different barrier systems be used in order to further decrease the likelihood of tampering. For example, a bottle of an over-the-counter pain reliever may have a plastic seal completely affixing cap to bottle and a mylar sheet sealing the top of the bottle under the lid. If the packaging has been disturbed in any way, the potential consumer will notice it. In a world of increasing technological sophistication, no package can be considered absolutely tamper-proof. The goal of tamper-resistant packaging is to protect consumers to the greatest degree possible from either intentional or inadvertent product packaging safety breaches.

In addition to tamper-resistant product packaging for the general public, household products that are considered either hazardous or potentially unsafe for children must have specific types of child-resistant packaging. There is a two-part requirement in this area of product packaging. The package must present a substantial and prolonged barrier to a child under the age of five who is attempting to breach it, and it must simultaneously be possible for an elder adult to open the package with a reasonable degree of ease. It is possible for some products, particularly those marketed specifically to older adults, to be produced without child-safety packaging, so long as those products carry a visible and obvious statement, such as: "This product or package is only intended for purchase by households NOT containing young children," or "This package is NOT child-resistant."


Web sites

Consumer Product Safety Commission. "Poison Prevention Packaging Act." 〈〉 (accessed December 18, 2005).

FACSNET. "Product Tampering: The Legal Framework of Product Tampering." 〈〉 (accessed December 19, 2005).

FACSNET. "Product Tampering: The Proliferation of Product Tampering." 〈〉 (accessed December 19, 2005). "Tamper-Resistant Packaging." 〈〉 (accessed December 19, 2005).

Product Tampering

views updated May 29 2018


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.


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.