The Cyanide Scare; a Tale of Two Grapes

By Grigg, Bill; Modeland, Vern | FDA Consumer, July-August 1989 | Go to article overview

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. …

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