It appears that there’s a new sheriff in town at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agency periodically has said it would get tough on product tampering, but now it has given several signs that it’s about to get a whole lot leaner and meaner when it comes to going after people who trifle with foods, medicines and devices.
On Monday, the Denver Post reported that over the weekend, local shoppers had found Gatorade bottles with a photo of Tiger Woods and his wife, along with “Unfaithful” on the altered label. A day later, the paper said it had tracked the labels to a local artist who admitted to the alterations, saying it was a stunt as part of a “pop art” project, and that the FDA was investigating. According to the blog SlashFood, the artist altered about 1,000 bottles.
Today, the Wall St. Journal reported that Longmont, Col. resident Jason Kay was arrested for the “stunt” and charged with a federal tampering violation. It wasn’t hard to find him — he’d included his email address on the labels, and he’d also contacted Gatorade producer PepsiCo to suggest a marketing partnership. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Denver says that Kay could face up to a year in jail and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
But other tampering episodes have done significantly more damage and the perpetrators have been harder to track down. The person behind 1982’s Tylenol poisonings, which killed seven people, has never been located. The fiasco led to new packaging innovations and harsher product tampering laws.
Even so, there seem to be gaping holes in manufacturing and distribution that give criminals — sociopaths or just plain fraudsters — ample opportunity to alter products. In 2008, heparin produced in China for Baxter International was tampered with at the source, leading to a hundred or more deaths. The motivation? The Chinese source mixed in a cheaper ingredient that allowed it to reap more profits.
The FDA is going to take a closer look at economically-motivated product tampering in a May 1 workshop that will be held in College Park, Md. Will it lead to better oversight?
— Alicia Ault (on Twitter @aliciaault)