Tamper Evident Packaging: Law Enforcement and the Consumer

By Rosette, Jack L. | The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin, September 1992 | Go to article overview
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Tamper Evident Packaging: Law Enforcement and the Consumer

Rosette, Jack L., The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin

For centuries, civilizations used various forms of product packaging to store and transport food and other items. As time passed, these product packages underwent an evolution in design and material composition. For example, ancient civilizations used goatskins and earthenware to store liquids and food items. Then, as recently as the 1950s, any reference to a food package usually meant a glass, metal, or paper container. Now, the term "food container" also refers to rigid or flexible plastic packaging in which the food oftentimes can be cooked and served.

Today, however, a primary concern in packaging extends not only to storing food and other items but also to limiting access to the container's contents only to the product's final consumer. This concern grew as a result of incidents of product tampering that occurred in various products, such as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs, beverages, food products, candy, and vitamins. In fact, in recent years, every part of the United States experienced incidents of product tampering.

This article provides law enforcement with background information concerning product tampering. It also discusses its rate of occurrence in American society and the legal jurisdiction concerning product tampering cases. The article then addresses how consumers can reduce the possibility of becoming victims of product tampering.


In September and October 1982, seven people died in Chicago, Illinois, after they consumed adulterated Tylenol. As a result of these incidents, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented regulations in late 1982 to require tamper-evident packaging on all OTC drugs and certain cosmetics. These regulations became effective in 1983. (1) This marked the introduction of tamper-evident packaging to American consumers. These antitampering features, if they remain intact, assure the consumer of the product's safety.

Also in 1982, Congress passed the Federal Anti-Tampering Act (FATA). (2) This act authorized the FBI to investigate cases of product tampering. With the implementation of this new legislation, consumers became increasingly aware of product packaging. However, this awareness also lead to an increase in the number of complaints of possible product tampering.

For instance, prior to 1982, the FDA received a total of 37 complaints of possible tampering, dating back to the early 1970s. But, by 1986, the number of possible product tampering cases reported to the FDA jumped to over 1,700, of which less than 5 percent proved to have potentially harmful effects. (3) Obviously, based on these statistics, a need exists for a method to determine quickly the likelihood of possible package violations.

Is Product Tampering Widespread?

Based on the number of cases the author is familiar with, in addition to the 1,700 reported, the number of cases of possible product tampering annually is approximately 1,800. (4) About 1,300 of these cases result from manufacturing defects, false claims, or false alarms. This leaves about 500 serious claims per year. Of these 500 complaints, case investigators confirm approximately 11 percent as product tampering.

Additionally, each year, industry produces billions of packages of food, cosmetics, and OTC products. This means that statistically, approximately one person in every 120,000 files a report concerning a case of suspected product tampering. The statistical probability of injury, of any type, from product tampering is approximately l in 3 million. Yet, despite this limited number of complaints, the statistics do not matter if even one person is harmed because of product tampering.

For this reason, local law enforcement agencies must be prepared to investigate such cases. Prompt, efficient response in preserving evidence is critical to ultimate success in resolving cases.

Another danger often associated with product tampering is the possibility of copycat reports.

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