The Cyanide Scare; a Tale of Two Grapes
Grigg, Bill, Modeland, Vern, FDA Consumer
THE CYANIDESCARE A Tale of Two Grapes
March 1989 marked the most intensive food safety investigation in Food and Drug Administration history. Millions of tons of fruit became suspect when a terrorist, 6,000 miles away, apparently made good on a phone call threatening to poison this nation's fresh fruit supply. Fruit in stores was returned or destroyed, and shipments coming into the country from Chile were halted.
In Chile, seasonable fruit and vegetable export are second in importance only to copper to the national economy. In the United States, the cost of the terrorist's call might reach $50 million--the estimated value of 45 million crates of nectarines, plums, peaches, apples, pears, raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, and table grapes that faced destruction.
How did it happen?
Since it was his turn as duty officer, Dick Swanson wasn't surprised when the black box on his belt beeped at 7:20 p.m., Friday, March 3. But the caller would have to wait. Swanson was inside his van in the middle of the Potomac River. His van was one of eight or 10 cars jammed onto White's Ferry, guided by a cable across a bridgeless strip of river west of Washington.
Swanson, director of the Division of Emergency and Epidemiological Operations at FDA's headquarters in Rockville, Md., was minutes from his Virginia home and dinner. For a Friday, he had been thinking, he wasn't so late.
Ever since the 1982 Tylenol tampering crisis, his wife only half counted on him on Fridays. There always seemed to be emergencies at the end of a week.
A second beep sounded as he reached his door, so he headed straight to the telephone and called the number that had appeared on the beeper. A U. S. Customs official came on the line. He told Swanson that a cable from the U.S. Embassy in Santiago, Chile, had informed Customs:
ON MARCH 2 AT 1550 HOURS AN EMPLOYEE OF THE AGRICULTURE PUBLIC HEALTH INSPECTION SERVICE RECEIVED A CALL FROM A SPANISH SPEAKING MAN, WHO SOUNDED MIDDLE AGED AND WHO SPOKE WITH AN UNEDUCATED ACCENT. THE MAN STATED THAT FRUIT BEING EXPORTED TO BOTH THE UNITED STATES AND JAPAN WILL BE INJECTED WITH CYANIDE...IN ORDER TO FOCUS ATTENTION ON THE LIVING CONDITIONS OF THE LOWER CLASSES IN CHILE. HE FURTHER STATED THAT TOO MANY PEOPLE IN THE COUNTRYSIDE WERE STARVING DUE TO INCREASED LIVING COSTS AND WERE UNABLE TO BUY SUFFICIENT FOOD TO SURVIVE.
The caller said killing policemen and placing bombs had not solved the problem and he wanted to involve other countries. Although the Manuel Rodriguez Patriotic Front and the Leftist Revolutionary Front had been attacking policemen and placing bombs to bring about changes in the country and government of Augusto Pinochet, the caller did not say if he was involved with either group.
Swanson didn't get to the dinner tabel. He began a series of calls--to the commissioner, the deputy commissioner, and other headquarters executives. Swanson and Richard Dees, investigations branch chief in the division of field investigations, then divided up the names of key field personnel, called them, and filled them in. "This is a Stage I alert. Customs has received a cable from State about a threat that poison will be put in fruit," they began. Swanson also called his counterpart in Canada, since Chilean fruit that enters the United States may wind up there.
Saturday, FDA Commissioner Frank E. Young, M.D., Ph.D., and others met at FDA headquarters in Rockville. They continued to confer on Sunday. But by Monday, the State Department had concluded the telephone call was "probably a hoax." FDA then released news of the call and State's view of it as a likely hoax. FDA said fruit had been temporarily held but was moving again. Few newspapers reported FDA's announcement. The crisis appeared over.
The terrorist called the embassy in Santiago again on the eighth of March, and again on March 17, warning that the March 2 threat was no hoax.
FDA began to step up inspections, mostly at the Port of Philadelphia, where 80 percent of all Chilean fruit imported by the United States arrives.
"We didn't know what kind of fruit had been targeted for poisoning or which ship schedule and went to work on the docks looking for it," says Richard Davis, regional food and drug director in Philadelphia.
First to be inspected would be the Almeria Star, which had sailed Feb. 27 from Santiago with 364,000 boxes of fruit in her holds. On Sunday, March 12, investigators began examining a representative 12,000 boxes of the fruit. While they worked, the Mikawa Maru and the Reefer Jambu waited in the Delaware River, carrying another 600,000 boxes of Chilean fruit. More was coming--as of March 16, 1.4 million tons was enroute.
To examine the growing mountain of Chilean fruit, the FDA Philadelphia district office needed extra help. Among those assigned to the temporary duty was William T. Fidurski, from FDA's North Brunswick, N.J., resident inspection post. He was one of some 40 FDA people assigned to inspect fruit at the Tioga Fruit Terminal in Philadelphia.
FDA investigators and trade association employees first would open the boxes picked at random from the consignment, then Fidurski and the other inspectors would take one and move it to their inspection area.
Protective plastic and paper wrappers, which looked intact, were carefully peeled back to expose the fruit to view.
"They were right on top of the box," Fidurski recalls. The red seedless grapes were discolored. They had damaged skins. That's about all he remembered about them, out of the 2 million grapes FDA investigators saw that day.
Being careful not to disturb anything in the box, Fidurski turned the crate over to his supervisor. It went, among others with damage or containing discolored fruit, to the FDA Philadelphia laboratory for closer examination. There, colored photos were taken that showed rings of a crystalline substance surrounding what might be puncture sites. The grapes then were sliced carefully and placed in small glass flasks. In the flasks, the slices were squeezed with a glass rod to release juice, and a solution of diluted sulfuric acid was added. Sulfuric acid will cause chemical changes to cyanide compounds, releasing hydrogen cyanide gas. A small strip of paper, coated with a reagent that turns blue in the presence of hydrogen cyanide, was placed in each flask and the bottles were capped with glass stoppers. This "cyantesmo test" would detect the presence of as little as 10-millionths of a gram of cyanide. Within minutes, it did. The analysts then did a Chloramine T test, which produces a pink-purple color in a reactive solution. The second test confirmed results of the first.
Those two red grapes contained cyanide in amounts far too small to cause death, or even illness, to anyone eating them. And, because crystalline potassium cyanide and sodium cyanide change to hydrogen cyanide gas in acid fruit and can then dissipate, FDA scientists couldn't determine how much of the poison might have originally been injected into the grapes. But, cyanide was present.
Back home, after his weekend of looking at fruit, Fidurski heard on a television newscast that FDA had found two grapes that contained cyanide. He immediately recognized the description.
In the hours between when Fidurski had noticed those damaged grapes and when he heard of them again on the television news from New York, the pressure on decision-makers grew.
Five men and a woman clustered around a speakerphone in the FDA commissioner's office, once again going over the same questions the world would soon be asking: Can we be sure it's cyanide? Should we act on two grapes? What if we don't? Is there more poisoned Chilean fruit on the Almeria Star--or on the many other ships waiting to unload or enroute from Chile?
On the other end of the telephone line was Frederick L. Fricke, FDA's preeminent expert on cyanide. "There were just two grapes found with cyanide, Fred," Commissioner Young said. "Very low levels. Very low...0.003 milligrams vs. 20 to hurt an adult. Are you confident that the results are right--the cyanide was there?"
"Confident? Yes. The analysts [at the Philadelphia lab] are experienced with cyanide. They smelled cyanide [a "burnt almond" smell]. They confirmed it with two tests. The cyanide was low--maybe most had come back out the injection holes, or the acidity had dissipated it--but it was there. There was no reason to believe it was not there," said Fricke from his office in Cincinnati.
"I wanted to hear that from you," Young said, "because two grapes--that isn't much, people are going to say."
"Two grapes," FDA's associate commissioner for regulatory affairs John Taylor said. "They may kill us for reacting to two grapes. But I can't see we have much choice."
"There may be more we haven't found," someone said.
"The threat was not just grapes... `fruit.'"
"We have to report what we've found, that's the minimum."
"Canada wanted to bar all Chilean fruit imports just on the basis of the first threat. You know they'll bar it now."
"Where does that leave us?"
Young said, "I think we have to detain the fruit, at least until we know more. Kay [Hamrie--Dr. Young's staff assistant], can you get me Dr. Mason and Dr. Sullivan?"
The newly confirmed Secretary of Health and Human Services, Louis W. Sullivan, M.D., and James O. Mason, M.D., assistant secretary for health, were quickly briefed. The many political and financial ramifications of a quarantine were discussed. Dr. Sullivan and his aides asked if there were any less drastic actions that could be taken. However, they agreed that HHS and FDA weren't charged with foreign policy considerations and commerce. "Our job," Sullivan said, "is the health of the American people."
A news release was drafted, in case it was needed. Copies were passed around the table and quickly approved: "The Food and Drug Administration said today it has found and confirmed traces of cyanide in a small sample of seedless red grapes from Chile and, as a result, is detaining all grapes and other fruit from that country...."
On the evening newscasts March 13, much of the nation learned for the first time that most of the fresh fruit they enjoyed in the winter came from Chile.
In the Philadelphia Customhouse, the rest of that Sunday was spent testing all the other grapes packed in the same box where the cyanide-positive samples were found. FDA investigators looked carefully at the way the grapes were packed. They examined sulfate-impregnated pads placed with the grapes to retard spoilage, the wrapping paper around each bunch of grapes, the plastic box liner, and the box itself. Nothing extraordinary was found--no indications of tampering with anything other than the tainted grapes themselves.
Still, the evidence of tampering was there--two grapes had holes in them and contained cyanide. What was to be done about all the rest of the Chilean fruit?
It was obvious to one passenger in the no-longer-new compact car that Commissioner Young was a man of faith. The evidence was partly in the church program on the back seat--and largely in the way Dr. Young drove on a busy parkway toward downtown Washington while talking on his car phone...to Public Health Service executives, to Secretary Sullivan's staff, to the Chilean embassy, and to others.
But when Young arrived at FDA's downtown Washington building, the news wasn't good. Representatives of the importers and exporters were proving hard-nosed. "They're saying they can do a 1 or 2 percent inspection," a tired John Taylor told Young after a negotiation session. "That's no more than we were doing in Philadelphia before we found the grapes!"
Young and Taylor began to prepare a plan for 5 percent inspections to be carried out by food graders, paid for by industry, but trained, supervised and audited by FDA. (FDA, with only 1,000 investigators nationwide, couldn't handle the job itself and still cover blood banks, drug companies, warehouse, and all the other facilities requiring checks.)
This is what could get the fruit moving again, they told the industry.
With any number of details still to be worked out and agreed to, Sullivan and Young announced on March 17--five days after the detention began--the gradual return of Chilean fruit.
The next day in Philadelphia, FDA investigators began training the first group of food graders in what to look for. That afternoon, inspections at the 5 percent level began.
Room 1001 in the U.S. Customhouse in downtown Philadelphia became, as a hand-lettered sign beside its door proclaimed, the "War Room" for the next three weeks. Taped to the door itself was one of the colored photos taken of the red grapes. Someone had added a hand-lettered description: "The Enemy."
At the peak of the crisis, 15 percent of the entire FDA inspection force became involved in examining Chilean fruit. They came from as far away as Minneapolis and San Juan, expanding the inspection team working out of Philadelphia to 166 at one time.
In FDA's Philadelphia district laboratories, on the 11th floor of the Customhouse, analysis of suspicious fruit peaked at 150 samples a day. And, while they worked, the analysts could easily be intimidated by a glance out of their windows toward the Delaware River. For a time, five refrigerated freighters loaded with Chilean fruit were anchored in midriver, awaiting dock space as the intensified inspections slowed unloading.
Since entire shipments were held in quarantine while representative samples were examined, cold storage sites around Philadelphia filled quickly. Grocers were adding to the strain on refrigerated storage capacity as they returned fruit they had removed from sale. FDA's investigators found it necessary to cover an ever-widening area in keeping track of the mountain of fruit that was suddenly of so much interest to so many.
By April 4, 4,781,361 cases of Chilean fruit had been processed and released at the Philadelphia area examination sites. Nationwide, the total was closer to 7.9 million cases, including 6.1 million crates of grapes, as the inspection activity also peaked in Miami and Los Angeles, the other major ports of entry for fruit from Chile destined for American consumers. FDA lowered its level of inspection to 4 percent on March 27, then to 1 percent on April 6. By the end of the crisis, on April 14, when Chilean authorities assumed the inspection responsibility in their country, more than 9 million crates of Chilean fruit had been marked "inspected and cleared."
"This has been a difficult time," FDA Commissioner Young reflected as the fruit reappeared on produce counters. He praised the Chilean efforts at greater security and said that this--together with greater consumer awareness, better understanding of the chemistry involved, and the fact that no additional signs of tampering had been found--permitted a return to normal.
At a Chilean embassy party in Washington, D.C., among those in the brown bag lunch bunch at FDA, and in homes across America, people were eating grapes again.
PHOTO : Above, left: Nicholas Falcone, research coordinator in FDA's Philadelphia district, examines grapes from Chile. At the peak of the tampering crisis, the Philadelphia laboratory was performing 150 inspections a day.
PHOTO : At right, Falcone prepares suspicious grapes for a test to detect as little as 10-millionths of a gram of cyanide.
PHOTO : "CN Spikes" reads the label above a log of test results on fruit that has been injected, or "spiked," with cyanide (CN = cyanide ion). The results are used to verify the method used in detecting cyanide in grapes.
PHOTO : In a mammoth Holt Terminal warehouse, on the docks at Camden, N.J., across the Delaware River from Philadelphia, approximately 100 FDA-trained inspectors examine green grapes from Chile, box by box by box.…
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Publication information: Article title: The Cyanide Scare; a Tale of Two Grapes. Contributors: Grigg, Bill - Author, Modeland, Vern - Author. Magazine title: FDA Consumer. Volume: 23. Issue: 6 Publication date: July-August 1989. Page number: 7+. © 1999 U.S. Government Printing Office. COPYRIGHT 1989 Gale Group.
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