Whackos, the disgruntled, copycats and extortionists

By Janette Woodhouse
Wednesday, 26 September, 2018

Whackos, the disgruntled, copycats and extortionists

The current ‘needles in fruit’ crisis shows exactly how vulnerable we all are to whackos, the disgruntled, copycats and extortionists.

It is well-nigh impossible to buy a metal detector or X-ray inspection equipment at the moment as every produce company has scrambled to ensure that it is doing everything possible to protect its products. But how successful will this be? Sadly, most of the incidents seem to be carried out by copycats fixated on enjoying vicarious notoriety, who perpetrate their nefarious acts at the retail level. No amount of vigilance at the grower/packer level will prevent whackos in supermarkets or their own homes pushing a needle into a piece of fruit.

The media isn’t innocent

If these crimes weren’t covered so sensationally and extensively by the media the copycats would be less likely to go into action. But equally, fear of seeing consumers hurt or of contravening their insurance forces everyone want to use the media to alert the community of the issue.

Back in the 1970s, in a more innocent time, bank robberies were rampant and the news media regularly included the sum of money stolen in their reporting. This became almost like advertising for potential bank robbers as it showed just how much money could be reaped in a single offence. The banks and the media came to an agreement that the sum stolen would not be reported and the bank robberies decreased in frequency.

Sabotaged food is actually pretty rare. Some examples include:

  • Girl Scout Cookies (1984): Needles and other foreign objects were found in boxes of Girl Scout Cookies cookies in at least 17 states in the US, resulting in reports of pierced gums and injured lips. The Girl Scouts suspended biscuit sales that year, and, despite the introduction of a new tamper-evident box the following year, sales declined by more than 25%.
  • Jell-o pudding (2010): A US couple made and ate the pudding then replaced pudding powder with a mixture of sand and salt and returned the package to the grocery store for a refund. They did this 50 times before being caught but it seems they were just after free pudding.
  • Minced meat (2003): A supermarket in Grand Rapids, Michigan, recalled 1700 pounds of ground beef after 111 people fell ill. Randy Jay Bertram, an employee at the store, had mixed insecticide into the meat in an attempt to get his supervisor into trouble.
  • Bottled water (2003): About 30 Italians were hospitalised after drinking bottled water contaminated with acetone, bleach or ammonia; small quantities of the poisonous liquids had been injected under the plastic caps. No-one claimed responsibility for the acts, but police suspect the tampering could have been the work of anti-capitalist activists or eco-terrorists. Although the perpetrator was dubbed the ‘aquabomber’, incidents sprang up in more than 20 different cities, leading police to believe that numerous copycats were involved.
  • Lollies (1984): In Japan a person or group calling itself ‘The Monster with 21 Faces’ claimed to have contaminated Glico candies with potassium cyanide. None of the tainted candies were found.
  • Oranges (1978): In the Netherlands a Palestinian militant group that called itself the Arab Revolutionary Army claimed responsibility for injecting citrus fruit from Israel with mercury in order to induce panic and disrupt Israel’s economy.
  • Chilean fruit (1998): Following a tip-off claiming that Chilean fruit had been laced with cyanide, a sample of Chilean grapes was found to contain cyanide. 4,781,361 cases of fruit had been examined before Chilean authorities took over responsibility for inspecting fruit before it was exported.
Baby food is particularly popular:
  • In 1989, slivers of glass, razor blades, pins and caustic soda were found in H.J. Heinz, and Cow & Gate baby foods. The scare began with a blackmailer trying to extort $1.7 million from Heinz, and then escalated as copycats capitalised on the initial report.
  • In 2004, two jars of baby food were found to be contaminated with ground castor beans, which contain trace amounts of the poison ricin. One of the jars contained a note warning that the baby food had been contaminated.
  • In 1986, the FDA received about 140 reports of glass in Gerber baby food and, upon investigation, confirmed 21 cases of tampering, although they were likely the work of isolated individuals.

Australia has not been immune

  • In 1985, Masterfoods recalled tens of thousands of Mars and Snickers bars following extortion threats.
  • In 1997, a number of poisoned Arnott’s biscuits were sent to the company in an extortion bid. The total cost of the product recall has been estimated at $22 million.
  • Sizzler restaurants (2006): A diner at a Queensland Sizzler restaurant discovered pellets of rat poison in her soup, and at another location, the same pellets were found in some pasta sauce. Shortly thereafter, all Sizzler locations across Australia suspended salad bar service. The culprit, who issued no demands or threats of extortion, turned out to be a mentally unstable woman from Brisbane. The case prompted Queensland lawmakers to draft a law requiring that all food establishments report suspected tampering immediately, or face a fine of $15,000.

Do we have to go ‘tamper evident?

In a world vehemently against excessive packaging for environmental reasons it would be hard to sell the need for all produce to be packed in tamper-evident packaging. OK, the packaging equipment manufacturers and packaging consumable manufacturers would be overjoyed but consumers would be against the amount of packaging and resent having to pay for it as well.

I guess we just have to let everything settle down, maintain vigilance, ensure that produce leaving your facility has not been tampered with, beware of disgruntled staff, be especially cautious if your business has organised crime connections either now or in its past, keep excellent records in the event of a recall, keep communication lines open with the relevant authorities…

Image credit: ©stock.adobe.com/au/Victor Moussa

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