Sabotage in the Food Chain : Tylenol, oranges, soup and now grapes. An effective defense remains elusive.

Times Staff Writers

Chile’s fruit isn’t the first to fall prey to sabotage.

In 1978, a dozen Europeans in at least three countries became ill after eating Israeli oranges, lemons and grapefruit that had been tainted with mercury. A group of Palestinian extremists took responsibility for the poisoning, saying its goal was to “sabotage the Israeli economy.”

Europe responded by boycotting Israeli citrus for a time, dealing a heavy blow to that nation’s fragile finances.

This time around, the Chilean fruit industry was crippled by a lightning-fast decision by the United States and other countries to ban imports from the South American nation after two grapes in a shipment to Philadelphia were found to have been injected with cyanide.

Until recently, the prospect that terrorist actions would affect Americans’ food supply seemed remote. But the Chilean fruit scare, while short-lived, demonstrated the susceptibility of the nation’s food chain, supermarkets and drugstores to acts of sabotage, even when they may originate in places thousands of miles away.

“Terrorists and bad guys all over the world see how vulnerable the food chain is in our mass society today and how easy it is to start a panic,” said Neil C. Livingstone, a Washington terrorism expert who documented the Israeli case in a 1987 book he co-authored, “America the Vulnerable.”


To be sure, no individual or group in Chile has claimed responsibility for the poisoning. Right-wing government officials blamed leftists, who in turn suggested that the deed was done on U.S. soil. It is not even clear what terrorists might have stood to gain from the crisis. But the controversy spotlights the potential for terrorists or extortionists to paralyze world trade.

That this nation’s system for distributing food and pharmaceuticals could be held hostage to anyone with a grudge or simply a desire to wreak havoc became frighteningly clear in 1982, when seven Chicago-area people died after taking Tylenol capsules laced with cyanide. Seven years and thousands of leads later, a frustrated law enforcement task force has yet to solve the murders, although a man is in federal prison after having been convicted of attempting to extort $1 million from the drug’s manufacturer.

Since then, dozens of copycat tampering cases have been reported nationwide, including a replay of the Tylenol scare that resulted in the 1986 death of a Peekskill, N.Y., woman. The tragedy prompted manufacturer Johnson & Johnson to take the costly step of discontinuing production of Tylenol capsules, which had been the nation’s best-selling painkiller. The product is still sold as a tablet, liquid and caplet, or oval-shaped solid pill.

Other cases of deliberate acts of poisoning or tampering have affected products from Lipton Cup-A-Soup to orange juice. In one case, a former San Marino stock brokerage trainee was sentenced to 27 years in prison for lacing over-the-counter drug capsules with rat poison in a scheme to profit in the options market from a panic-driven plunge in the manufacturer’s stock.

Soon after the 1982 Tylenol tragedy, the government ordered makers of over-the-counter medications to improve packaging to reduce the likelihood of tampering. Although the new seals and cartons have not eliminated the problem, they have at least given retailers and consumers a better shot at detecting evidence of sabotage, product makers say.

But fruits and vegetables are another story. At every step of the way--from field to shipping port to store shelf--vast quantities of produce lie vulnerable.

Increased Surveillance

As Cathy Hemly, an apple grower and packer in Courtland, Calif., said with resignation this week: “I don’t know how as individual growers we can protect our crops. How can you protect them when there’s hundreds of thousands of pounds out there?”

Although Chilean fruit is flowing into the United States and other markets again, observers say security will continue to be a problem. “The whole food system is based on the integrity of the people in it,” said Robert Aders, president of the Food Marketing Institute in Washington. “Suddenly, it’s an attractive place for criminals to go to express a grievance.” Speaking in Miami to reporters, Aders predicted that surveillance of imported fruit will increase.

Harvey Alter, head of resource policy at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, agreed that “we need to take a look at our entire food safety system--how we regulate it, how we inspect it.”

In Washington on Friday, federal officials said they have chosen to inspect at U.S. docks a random sampling of 5% of the fruit imported from Chile to ensure that future imports are free of poisons. But they acknowledged that many details of the inspection system must still be worked out. And they noted that the cyanide-tainted grapes would not have been found at all had they not been alerted by anonymous phone tips. As it was, many observers have described the discovery of the two grapes as an example of finding a “needle in a haystack.”

Ultimately, consumers themselves will have to be on the lookout for “injection marks, unusual appearance, discoloration or chemical or almond-like smells” that would indicate the presence of cyanide, Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Frank E. Young said.

According to industry officials, the vast majority of the inspectors will be employees of the companies that import Chilean fruit and will be paid by them, not the federal taxpayer. The FDA will monitor their work. Similar cooperative inspection programs are routinely used to screen food items for safety, but their effectiveness has often been called into question. And it remains to be seen how diligent inspectors will be if long periods pass between crises.

Methods Questioned

In the United States, responsibility for keeping food safe rests with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration, aided by state agencies and manufacturers.

Worldwide, the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has taken on the role of watchdog of the global food supply. In 1959, the FAO and the World Health Organization developed a 140-nation group called Codex Alimentarius, or Food Code, to devise a system of international food handling.

Until now, that body has dealt primarily with issues of pesticides, additives and contamination by bacteria and certainly has not seen anything of the magnitude of the Chilean fruit scare, acknowledged Lester M. Crawford, the U.S. coordinator with Codex. “At the present time there is little agreement internationally on how to deal with this,” he noted.

Crawford said the cooperation of many nations would be required for any widespread testing program.

Ian I. Mitroff, director of the Center for Crisis Management at USC, said the Chilean fruit scare shows that “the game is asymmetrical. A single individual has more control over the system than the people trying to put it back together.” He said the incident demonstrates a need for crisis management on a national and even global scale. The USC center was founded three years ago in response to events such as the Tylenol case, the nuclear accident at Chernobyl and the chemical crisis in Bhopal, India.

Crisis management is actually far from a new idea. According to a study by the Foundation for American Communications, a media research organization in Los Angeles, the FBI in the late 1970s held closed meetings on what it labeled “superviolence"--the idea that someday anonymous individuals might contaminate the water supply, tamper with food or drugs or threaten to sabotage nuclear power plants.

But the problem really did not materialize in the United States until 1982, when seven deaths were linked to cyanide-tainted Tylenol capsules. Johnson & Johnson was widely praised for its heads-up handling of the crisis after it removed the product from store shelves, saying its first obligation was customer safety.

Copycat Crimes

Government officials at that time advised Johnson & Johnson to leave Tylenol in stores, fearing that removal would only encourage further tampering--an ironic contrast with the government’s own action against Chilean fruit contamination, which did not cause deaths.

In the Tylenol case, a task force of 200 federal, local and state law enforcement officers went to work, tracking an “astronomical” number of leads, recalled Capt. Edward Cisowski of the Illinois State Police, who helped supervise the investigation. Although no one was formally charged with the murders, James W. Lewis, a bookkeeper, was arrested in New York in 1982 and was later convicted of seeking to extort $1 million from Johnson & Johnson.

Lewis, now in federal prison in Oklahoma, will be up for parole in August. According to Cisowski, he is still the “best suspect” in the killings, the investigation of which is being monitored by a single agent.

The Tylenol episode spawned a slew of copycats, with cases arising over glass in baby food and ice cream, acid in eye drops and cyanide in soup. Most of those cases have been isolated attempts at extortion or murder. Some contamination scares have resulted merely from damage to products in manufacturing or shipping.

The September, 1986, poisoning of a Lipton Cup-A-Soup packet led to the death of a 27-year-old New Jersey man. A Lipton spokesman noted at the time that the soup package had clear signs of tampering, including punctures in the foil packets containing the powdered mix and possible evidence that the outer box had been penetrated. The case remains unsolved.

Since the Tylenol case, said Karen Brown, a spokeswoman for the Food Marketing Institute in Washington, grocery stores have become more diligent about monitoring customers to guard against tampering. And employees who stock shelves have been trained to watch for evidence of tampering.

Despite the continued risks of product tampering, it is likely that few shoppers would want to give up the country’s open-shelf system of shopping. “Some risk is acceptable,” said John T. Walden, senior vice president of the Proprietary Assn. in Washington, which represents makers of nonprescription medicines.

Low-Risk Sabotage

Tampering culprits usually get away, authorities say. “You’ve got laws against it, but let’s face it; there’s a minimal chance of getting caught,” said Livingstone, the Washington terrorism expert.

“It isn’t like the guy walking into a school with an assault rifle and killing kids,” he added, referring to the recent killing of five schoolchildren in Stockton, Calif. “It’s insidious horror as opposed to visible horror.” By sabotaging the food chain, terrorists “get it all for no sweat, no risk.”

Not only food and consumer products are potentially in danger, noted A. Robert Kupperman, a terrorism specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

What about electrical and water supplies, financial and banking networks and transportation systems--services that people take for granted and that, if sabotaged, could have far greater ramifications than hijackings or bombings?

Kupperman said the threat of terrorism in the United States must be taken on as a “serious national security problem,” involving coordination of relevant agencies and cooperation with other countries.

Since 1980, Kupperman said, there have been about 8,000 attacks on electrical power throughout the world, although almost all were carried out by vandals or disgruntled employees. Terrorists were responsible for about 300 of the attacks.

“We’re getting into a new kind of terrorism,” he said, “indirect terrorism, where the infrastructure rather than the people or the facilities are being targeted or undermined.

“The object (with the tainted Chilean fruit) was to disrupt the market. The U.S. was not the target. The U.S. was the innocent actor in this. But where else in the world are you going to get the news and the focus of government dominated by two grapes?”

Martha Groves reported from Los Angeles and Robin Wright reported from Washington. Staff writers Daniel P. Puzo in Los Angeles and David Lauter in Washington contributed to this story.