Packaging Firms: Elite Troops in the War on Tampering

Times Staff Writer

Food and drug companies, always concerned with the products inside their packages, are now paying nervous attention to the packaging itself.

Since seven Chicago-area people died after swallowing cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules in 1982, scores of worried companies have enlisted the $37-billion-a-year packaging industry to help combat product sabotage, which has hit everything from cold capsules and ice cream to baby food and hot dogs.

Packaging worries intensified this year after a 23-year-old woman died Feb. 8 in Westchester County, N.Y., after taking an Extra-Strength Tylenol capsule poisoned with cyanide. That incident led to the recall of the Tylenol capsules by their manufacturer, Johnson & Johnson of New Brunswick, N.J. And the company went a step further, announcing that it would no longer produce any of its over-the-counter medicines in capsule form.

The packaging industry has responded to product sabotage primarily with so-called tamper-evident packaging. Tamper-evident enclosures do not prevent entry into a package. Rather, they are designed to leave evidence that an enclosure has been breached. "I'd say half of the packages in the health, beauty-aid and food area have been made more tamper-evident since the first Tylenol incident," said Robert G. McCready, director of marketing for Landor Associates in San Francisco, which, with $25 million in annual sales, claims to be the largest package design firm in the world.

Food Industry Worried

Added William Corbet, marketing services manager for Weldotron Corp., the nation's leading manufacturer of packaging equipment: "It started with the pharmaceutical industry; then, as time went by, the real big market turned out to be the food industry. Even though there is no government mandate (to secure food packages), the food industry is worried about tampering."

A number of other recent incidents have heightened concern for product safety. The cold remedy Contac and two other over-the-counter medicines were withdrawn from the market in March after rat poison was found in capsules in Houston and Orlando, Fla. The contaminant was found after anonymous telephone warnings were made to the company, news media, a storekeeper and police. No injuries were reported.

Officials of Lucky supermarkets recently withdrew all Lady Lee brands of ice cream, ice milk and sherbet from stores in California, Nevada and Arizona after glass was reported found in some ice cream containers. Again, there were no known injuries.

The problem of tampering is not confined to the United States.

At least eight people died last year in Japan after drinking juice that had been spiked with the pesticide paraquat. In Britain, a hoax by animal-rights activists in 1984 forced Mars to replace some candy bars on store shelves.

In the United States, although most of the recent tampering incidents--and all of the fatal contaminations--have involved over-the-counter drugs, many products in stores remain highly vulnerable to tampering because there is little or no packaging around them. Yet such tamper-evident materials could play a crucial role in frustrating product sabotage, experts say. Manufacturers, however, have undertaken their conversion to tamper-evident enclosures with remarkable hush, leaving some consumers frustrated and confused.

Current Favorites

Currently, inner foil seals glued to cover bottle openings and plastic shrink seals heated to adhere to the outsides of bottlenecks are the most popular methods for securing products. Heinz, for instance, uses foil seals over its squeeze-bottle, plastic catsup containers, and shrink seals are used on the outside of Skippy peanut butter jars. The seals are favored because they have been around a long time, don't slow down production lines and are relatively inexpensive to use.

Too Large to Use

Blister packs--sheets of clear plastic bubbles backed by foil or cardboard such as the containers that hold Contact--are popular among pharmacy firms. Other products too large to use those materials, such as wide-neck glass mayonnaise jars or jars of roasted nuts, utilize vacuum button tops that emit a telltale rush of air when opened. Yet few manufacturers explain to consumers how to spot evidence of tampering beyond the standard admonition of "do not use if seal is broken," critics say. In fact, some pharmaceutical and food producers euphemistically call their tamper-evident packaging "freshness or quality seals," said Jill Hunter, marketing coordinator for shrink-seal maker Gilbreth International Corp. of Bensalem, Pa.

"Consumer education has been limited because of concern that extensive educational efforts will precipitate even more" product sabotage, said Hugh E. Lockhart, a professor of packaging at the University of Michigan, who is conducting a study on tamper-evident packaging. "It's the biggest dilemma the industry is wrestling with."

"I think everyone is scared about buying something these days," said Novella Wilkenson, a receptionist at a Century City law office. "I try to open the box and make sure the lid has not been tampered with . . . but you never know what might happen to you."

Fear Sales Slump

The mood of resignation extends to the front lines of the tampering battle--supermarkets and drugstores. Owners say they are afraid that if they turn their facilities into fortresses, they will hurt sales and do little to prevent incidents of product sabotage.

"The problem of tampering has been discussed a lot in our industry," said Al Goldstein, president of Boy's supermarkets. "But what can you do? If someone really wants to tamper with a product, they can."

In a 1984 study, Cornell University Prof. Joseph Hotchkiss found that "many food products, particularly in grocery stores . . . can be opened and closed without any evidence." The easiest targets, according to Hotchkiss, are beverages such as fruit juice and dairy products.

However, food companies such as Glenview, Ill.-based Kraft Inc. are taking preventive measures, said Paul Sensbach, manager of creative packaging at Kraft.

He said that Kraft, like many other food companies, is packaging more of its products in tamper-evident containers. For example, it is wrapping its Breakstone's cottage cheese, as well as some ice cream and whipped topping products, with shrink wrap. "There is obviously a strong interest in making sure our products are tamper evident so that the consumer is protected," Sensbach said.

Piscataway, N.J.-based Weldotron, which has been supplying shrink wrap for record companies, toy makers, housewares and paper products for more than 25 years, has seen its annual sales and earnings hit record levels as food companies, pharmaceutical firms, cosmetic makers and computer disk and magnetic tape manufacturers began to clamor for a more secure and attractive way to package their products.

For the fiscal year ended April 30, 1985, Weldotron posted net income of $1.7 million on sales of $33.6 million, compared to net income of $1.5 million on sales of $30.7 million in the previous year.

"With the recent incidents of tampering, we've seen increased interest from a lot of manufacturers, especially food companies," Weldotron's Corbet said.

Arnold Brenner, Weldotron's product manager, said that the company's shrink-wrap machines, which cost between $25,000 and $70,000, are now being used by such major food concerns as Kraft and Winn-Dixie supermarkets to shrink-wrap products at an average cost of about 2 to 3 cents per item. Gilbreth International, which produces plastic bottleneck seals, says it has also seen increased demand for its tamper-evident seals.

Although the company, which supplies such firms as Hershey Foods and the Durkee Foods division of SCM Corp., would not disclose sales figures, "there has been increased interest from pharmaceutical firms as well as the food industry" because of the tampering incidents, Gilbreth's Hunter said.

Outside seals and shrink-wrapping are touted as ways to preserve a product's cleanliness and freshness. But they have another marketing edge. They offer companies an additional advertising vehicle. "Marketing departments love the shrink band because it can carry extra wording, such as 'new flavor,' at the same time it's protecting the package," explained Phillip Warren, manager of packaging development at R. T. French Co.

"When we first introduced the inner seal on our products, we did it mainly to protect the product from spoilage," Warren said. "But, over the years, it began to be an added plus relative to tamper evidence. It makes products last longer and it (improves) safety."

But critics say some early seals were susceptible to tampering without leaving evidence that the seal had been breached. Some seals could be heated in hot water, then loosened, slipped off and reapplied without detection.

Can Be Duplicated

In recent years, however, industry has switched to stiffer kinds of film that cannot be reshrunk once heated. Still, even modern shrink-wrap methods can be duplicated, experts say, with shrink-wrap film and such widely available tools as a hair dryer and a heated metal coat hanger.

And, while sophisticated lab techniques can be used to tell if a foil seal has been removed and reglued to a bottle top, few consumers can distinguish between the real McCoy and a sabotage job.

Products that use glass containers too large for shrink-wrapping, such as wide-mouthed popcorn and mayonnaise jars, have tried to improve tamper resistance by adding a vacuum button or a plastic or metal tear-off ring that comes apart when the top is unscrewed.

Already, nearly $1 out of every $10 that consumers spend for food and beverages pays for packaging, according to the Agriculture Department. The wholesale switching to tamper-evident packages promises to raise that cost, experts say.

To protect each bottle of Excedrin, for instance, Bristol Myers says it pays 5 cents for a metal can that resembles a tennis ball container.

And, when it passed new rules covering pharmaceutical firms, the Food and Drug Administration estimated that the new tamper-evident containers on average would cost consumers 1 or 2 cents per package more, or an additional $20 million to $40 million a year.

Fortunately, most cases of tampering complaints reported to the FDA turn out to be false alarms.

One of the most publicized cases since the latest Tylenol scare involves Gerber Products of Fremont, Mich., which has used tamper-evident lids on its baby food jars for more than 20 years.

In recent weeks, consumers in 30 states reported finding glass fragments in more than 250 Gerber jars. However, after inspecting about 50,000 jars of Gerber baby food, the FDA found only "harmless" specks of glass, no bigger than grains of sand, in nine of them.

"There never was any indication of tampering," Gerber spokesman Jim Lovejoy said. "There were some cases where glass was chipped from the jar rim where a person tried to open the jar with a spoon." In other cases, Lovejoy said, customers deliberately put glass in the baby food after they purchased it. Seven people have been arrested by police for such acts, Lovejoy said.

Some experts say tampering will disappear as publicity subsides. But other experts doubt the problem will go away. "Unfortunately, I think it's a problem that's here with us to stay for the long term," Prof. Lockhart said. "The present (tamper-evident) technologies are somewhat limited in their capabilities to protect consumers."

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World