What Hath Tylenol Wrought?

Posted: January 20, 1988

Jar Wars!

There is a revolution under way in the world of food packaging. You need only walk through the aisles of your local supermarket to see hundreds of examples.

Look at that spaghetti sauce jar. The lid says: LOOK - SAFETY BUTTON. REJECT IF BUTTON IS UP. (The center of the lid feels firm until the jar is opened, then becomes noticeably flexible.)

Look at that cottage cheese container with a plastic collar locked around the lid. The lid can't be opened until the collar is broken.

That cracker box may not look any different from those you have been buying for years, but its flaps are now sealed with a tougher glue. Where once you merely pulled to get them open, today you have to tug or even rip.

It is not uncommon these days for a jar to come with a seal under the cap as well as a foil wrapper on top or for a box to have a sealed pouch inside as well as an extra layer of wrapping outside.

A reminder of just why this is so came just last month when a Seattle-area woman was arrested and charged with double murder in the nation's first prosecution of a fatal package-tampering case. (She is accused of slipping cyanide into headache capsules.)

Ever since 1982, when seven people died in Chicago after taking cyanide- laced Tylenol capsules, companies have been switching to more protective packaging. Shortly after that tragedy (which remains unsolved), Congress passed a law requiring that all over-the-counter drug products be sold only in ''tamper-evident" packaging.

That means, says Bill Gregg, spokesman for the Food and Drug Administration, that "something has to be broken through to get to the opening of the container so that when opened, it looks opened. And the labeling has to call attention to that feature."

The law does not apply to food products, but, obviously food companies are adopting new packages on a voluntary basis.

"Food companies plan to do even more," says Hugh Lockhart of Michigan State University's School of Packaging. "The question is simply finding the best way."

New packaging methods now in the research stage include:

* A hidden magnetic strip that, if damaged in any way, would set off an alarm at a supermarket checkout counter.

* The use of microencapsulated ink - the kind used in carbonless carbon paper. The ink would be spread on the inner surface of a container such as the top of a milk carton. When the carton is opened, the tiny capsules containing the ink would be broken, thus releasing a telltale spread of color.

* The use of dyes that react to the presence of oxygen. The removal of a bottle cap or even a package puncture could trigger a printed image - like the word open, for example.

Does this mean that we can be sure the food and drugs we buy are now - or soon will be - safe from crazies who might want to slip a poison inside? No, just a lot safer than they used to be.

As Seymour Gilbert, professor of food science at Rutgers University, explains, there is no such thing as a package that can't be tampered with. ''All you can change," he says, "is the time and trouble required to do it."

Obviously, you can't make it impossible for a tamperer to open a package - because the consumer wouldn't be able to get it open either. All you can do is to design packages that are "tamper-evident." But even this isn't possible with absolute security, according to Gilbert.

"There isn't a package made now, nor will there ever be," he says, "that can't be taken home, tampered with, and then returned to the shelf looking like new, given enough time - and some ingenuity. Even if you were to put every product in a heavy safe, a safecracker would know how to get at it."

Obviously, however, tampering has become a lot tougher. And, to that extent, consumers can feel safer.

Consumers are very worried about product-tampering, says Martin Spiegel, marketing manager of Halpak Corp., which produces a "shrink wrap" commonly used to make dairy product packaging tamper-evident. "Ninety percent of consumers polled in a recent study said they considered safety when making a product choice. They used to say price or color of the box . . . It's clear that today a company that does not have a tamper-evident package may well lose sales to one that does."

Many supermarket chains are refusing to stock packages that are not tamper- evident. And checkout clerks watch for opened packages that the consumer may have missed.

If protective packaging is so important to consumers, you may well wonder why all the new, safer packaging is not mentioned in advertising. It definitely isn't.

Just recently, the McCormick Corp. launched a national advertising campaign to tout the new packaging of its spices. The ads pointed out these new containers make pouring easier and keep the spices fresher. But not one word is said about the fact, which company spokesman Jack Felton acknowledges, that the packages are also much more tamper-resistant than the old.

Although Campbell's Soup has added safety lids to jarred products and stickier glues to packages, the company won't discuss it. Says Campbell's spokesman David Hackney: "I can get executives here to talk to the press on any subject you could name - except that one."

Companies to do not want to mention the safety measures they are taking, says Gilbert, because they are afraid that if they say anything at all, someone will take it as a challenge. "Every company is afraid of becoming a target."

Another reason, says Martin Spiegel, is that food companies don't want to scare consumers. "Food people aren't going to advertise protection any faster than airlines advertise the safety of their engines. The airlines show you a Hawaiian beach. They don't want to talk you into white knuckles."

Spiegel says most incidents of tampering never reach the public. He says there were some 1,600 products quietly taken off store shelves this past year

because of alleged tampering or a threat of tampering. Needless to say, this sort of thing has boosted business "substantially" for his firm as well as others in the tamper-evident package business.

Tamper-evident packaging was not invented in 1982 - it's been around a long time. Cans are tamper-evident. So are aerosol containers and plastic bubble packs. However, in the past, the main customers of special packaging were makers of products that attracted - not would-be poisoners - but merely, as Spiegel puts it, "sniffers and lickers."

These are mothers who will dip a finger into baby food to taste it. That's why baby food jars open with a loud pop. If you didn't hear the pop, you knew the jar had been opened on the shelf. Or maybe you knew. In the past, there was nothing written on the jar to explain this to you. Today there is.

These are yogurt lovers who will open several containers to sniff the flavors. They then reclose the ones they don't plan to buy and leave them in the dairy case. That's why Halpak provides its dairy clients with a shrink band (a piece of plastic that shrinks to fit over the lid with the application of a second or two of heat). Since the plastic band has to be peeled off before the lid can be opened, it discourages tasters or indicates when a tasting has taken place.

Ordinary sniffers and lickers tend not to be prosecuted - but they could be. The 1982 law that requires tamper-evident drug packages also makes it a federal crime to tamper or threaten to tamper with any package. Because of this law, 25 FBI agents joined local police in the 18-month investigation that led to the recent arrest of Stella Nickell, 44, in Auburn, Wash.

Nickell was charged with placing cyanide in Excedrin capsules and then placing bottles of poisoned capsules in her own home and on local store shelves. Nickell's husband, Bruce, and Susan Snow, a 40-year-old bank manager who purchased one of the tainted bottles, both died in June 1986. (Excedrin, like Tylenol, no longer comes in capsule form.)

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