Food Safety

Dealing with Product Tampering Threats, Then and Now

How the FBI investigates product tampering in food and beverage cases – and how they did it in the Tylenol case.

By Pan Demetrakakes, Senior Editor

Everyone knows about how the Tylenol killings in 1982 got consumer products of all kinds, including foods and beverages, into tamper-evident packaging. But a lot of people don’t know exactly how that bizarre tragedy played out.

In 2001, Candice DeLong published her memoir, “Special Agent: My Life on the Front Lines as a Woman in the FBI.” An FBI special agent, DeLong was one of the principal investigators of the Tylenol poisonings, which ended up taking seven lives in the Chicago area.

I thought about DeLong’s account when I attended a presentation by another FBI employee at the recent ProFood Tech show in Chicago. Intelligence analyst Christopher Young gave a presentation on Food Security and the FBI that centered on how food companies should handle threats of poisoning and other sabotage. It was fascinating to listen to Young’s presentation, which he illustrated with a specific case, and to contrast it with what DeLong and her fellow agents had to go through as they searched for the Tylenol killer.

Young recounted a case where a soft drink processor received a mailed threat of ricin poisoning, purportedly from an employee. He said the FBI looks at these kinds of threats three ways:

  • Technical feasibility. Can the threat be carried out? In this case, since the packaging in question was twist-off caps, the answer was yes.
  • Operational feasibility. Can the actor do it? Since it was supposedly an employee, yes.
  • Adversarial intent. In this case, there was a clear threat. That isn't always true, Young said: “We get lots of white-powder letters, and they have some crazy ramblings, but there's never actually a threat.”

Looking back at the Tylenol case, technical and operational feasibility was, tragically, not an issue in those days before inner seals. As for adversarial intent, that became more complicated, and weird, when a handwritten letter arrived at Johnson & Johnson, maker of Tylenol, shortly after the killings, demanding a million dollars to stop them. The letter named a bank account into which the money was to be deposited.

DeLong and her colleagues traced the bank account to a local travel agent. It was a payroll account, and the investigators learned that the travel agent had bounced some paychecks and that the husband of one of the employees had taken it particularly hard. He had access to the account number through his wife, and apparently tried to get payback by framing his wife’s boss for the Tylenol murders.

He was convicted of extortion. DeLong and others strongly suspected that this man, who was also being investigated for a gruesome murder in Kansas City and other crimes, was actually the Tylenol killer. Their suspicions were heightened when, awaiting sentencing on the extortion charge, he spontaneously contacted the FBI and gave an incredibly detailed “hypothetical” account of how the killer “might” have doctored the capsules.

But that wasn’t enough evidence, and he was never charged with the Tylenol murders, although he was sentenced to 20 years for extortion. If he was the killer, and if framing his wife’s boss was his true motivation, it becomes a case of employee revenge – although an incredibly, and horrifically, farfetched and convoluted one.

The case that Young recounted at ProFood Tech was, thankfully, much more straightforward (and less tragic). The FBI was able to identify the letter writer, a disgruntled employee, through fingerprints. He was arrested and eventually sentenced to three years of probation and six months of “community confinement.” The company's losses were limited to $1 million, Young said (although he didn’t break down that figure).

Young identified “red lines” that should draw extra attention to an employee, such as a sudden change in personal financial situation, a false or sketchy work history or excessive foreign travel. He also said companies should be willing to extend “lifelines” to employees in some of these situations.

Young’s biggest lesson to the audience was: It’s not necessary for people actually to start dying from tainted products before calling for help. He stressed that the FBI is always receptive to processors' concerns but depends on being approached when a threat occurs.

“I need you to make those phone calls,” he said. “It seems obvious now, but it won't be when the time comes.”