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Packaging Firms: Elite Troops in the War on Tampering

April 06, 1986|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | 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 The cold remedy Contac and two other over-the-counter medicines were withdrawn from the market in March after rat poison was found in capsules in Houston and Orlando, Fla.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."

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