Company Halts Capsule Sales; Poison Found

Times Staff Writer

Rat poison was discovered in Contac cold capsules, Teldrin allergy medicine and Dietac appetite suppressant capsules Friday, forcing the manufacturer to withdraw the products from the market.

Dr. Frank E. Young, head of the Food and Drug Administration, condemned the tampering as "terrorism" committed by a "copycat" inspired by the Extra-Strength Tylenol poisonings that killed seven in 1982 and one earlier this year.

Investigators began analyzing Contac, Teldrin and Dietac capsules, manufactured by SmithKline Beckman Corp. of Philadelphia, Wednesday after an anonymous caller said he had "tainted" them with rat poison and cyanide. Throughout Friday, the number of capsules found to have been contaminated grew. By evening, investigators had found rat poison in five Contac and two Teldrin capsules and one Dietac from stores in Orlando, Fla., and Houston. No evidence of cyanide has been found, and no injuries have been reported.

Young said at a news conference that investigators mistakenly identified the contamination as cornstarch Thursday because the rat poison consists mostly of the starch and sugar, which act as a bait and base. Less than 1% consists of an anti-coagulant known as warfarin, which causes rats to die slowly. The amount that can be placed in a capsule would not harm humans, Young said.

'Terrorism' Decried

"This is an act of terrorism," the commissioner said. "This is an act of terrorism just as clearly as any notification that something is in place in a locker, in a bus, in a hotel, and then a demand made in one form or another. That's exactly the problem we have with protection for the American people, because it makes vulnerable essentially all of our over-the-counter or free shopping capabilities."

Federal officials said a caller identifying himself as "Gary" told the manufacturer, police agencies and news organizations that he poisoned the products to show that capsules are unsafe and should be removed from the market.

The calls were made to New York, Orlando, Houston, Chicago, Philadelphia and Rosslyn, Va., on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday. Young said there were reports that a woman had made some of the calls, but he did not know whether more than one person was involved.

Henry Wendt, president of SmithKline Beckman, said in an interview that the company received three calls from the same man on Wednesday and Thursday.

Caller 'Agitated'

"I don't think he sounds demented," Wendt said. "From what I can gather, he sounds agitated, nervous, serious--and threatening. He has never really explained his motives. He's not asked for money. It's not an act of revenge. It certainly is not an act of love. And he hasn't described any higher purpose. He made allusions to capsules in one conversation but not in others."

Wendt said a caller who told a Houston news organization that he had poisoned Sine-Off sinus capsules, which the company also makes, appears be another individual. There is no evidence to substantiate the caller's claim, he said, and Sine-Off will remain on the market while an investigation continues. However, a Houston-area food store chain did remove Sine-Off from its shelves.

"I liken this situation to the taking of hostages or the placement of a bomb on an aircraft," Wendt said.

Obvious Tampering

Officials said plastic that surrounds the individual capsules had been obviously sliced with a razor blade, making it easy to detect the tampering. Wendt noted that the tainted capsules came from the same product lot, indicating that they were bought at the same location and later placed in the Houston and Orlando stores.

The caller has reported tainting capsules at specific stores in Orlando, Houston, Chicago and St. Louis and vaguely described other stores in unspecified locations that had been targeted, Young said. So far, poison has been found only in the products sold at an Orlando store and a Houston store.

Callers who want more information about the contamination can reach SmithKline Beckman at the toll-free number: (800) 543-3434.

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