Column: Razor blades in pizza dough? The hidden danger of product tampering
A former employee of a company that makes pizza dough sold in supermarkets apparently had a score to settle.
Last October, according to the Department of Justice, the man entered a supermarket in Maine, approached the pizza-dough display case and, when no one was looking, quietly inserted razor blades into several products made by his former employer, It’ll Be Pizza.
Three customers subsequently purchased the tainted pizza dough. They discovered the razor blades as they began preparing their home-cooked pizzas. No one was reported injured.
The suspect in the case, identified as Nicholas Mitchell, 39, pleaded guilty in federal court last week to one count of tampering with a consumer product.
Mitchell now faces a sentence of as long as 10 years behind bars and a fine of as much as $250,000.
Incidents of tampering with consumer products are rare, but they do happen. And the onus is largely on consumers to be vigilant in making sure the goods they purchase are safe.
Christopher S. Tang, a professor of business administration at UCLA, acknowledged that reports of product tampering are infrequent. But he said the danger has grown.
“The country is so polarized,” Tang told me. “Everyone is unhappy. Just as we’ve seen the number of mass shootings go up, this too is something that needs to be watched closely.”
A paper last year in the journal Security Management compared food-safety measures to “counterterrorism.” It said all manufacturing facilities and retailers need “a food defense plan.”
The paper concluded that the greatest intentional threat to America’s food supply isn’t from a politically motivated terrorist but from an aggrieved industry insider, “meaning it is critical for every organization to improve its ability to identify an inside attacker.”
“Most organizations find it easy to believe that ‘nothing will ever happen here,’” the paper noted. “Employees tend to be reluctant to report coworkers.”
Frank Pisciotta, president of the security consulting firm Business Protection Specialists, was the lead author of the paper. He told me that motivations for tampering with food and drug products are in some ways comparable to workplace gun violence.
“The common thread that runs through a lot of these incidents is grievance,” Pisciotta said. “To stop them, it’s about identifying people of concern.”
That’s much easier said than done. I’ve known many disgruntled employees over the span of my career. Heck, I’ve been pretty pissy myself from time to time.
Thankfully, however, I’ve never known anyone whose personal animus manifested into a desire to harm others.
That’s why, despite the inherent dangers, it’s difficult to say that product tampering represents a grave threat to consumers.
When I contacted Yossi Sheffi, director of the MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics and an expert on risks to supply chains, he didn’t hesitate to say my interest in product tampering makes a mountain out of a molehill.
“After a year of 600,000-plus dead due to the criminal leadership of the previous administration, 20,000 people murdered, close to 40,000 people dying in road accidents every year and maybe over a hundred people dying in a building collapse in Florida, I do not see worrying about what could have been if somebody did eat a razor,” he said.
A similar point was made by Utpal Dholakia, a marketing professor at Rice University.
“Statistically speaking,” he told me, “we are putting ourselves at greater risk of falling sick from eating homemade salsa using supermarket-bought cilantro than something bad happening from someone tampering with a consumer packaged good we’ve purchased.”
Fair enough — although it’s easy to be dismissive of razor blades in pizza dough until you or someone you know bites down on one.
Still, it’s noteworthy that the most notorious product-tampering case in this country remains the seven people killed by cynanide-laced Tylenol capsules, and that was nearly four decades ago.
The Tylenol case resulted in extensive changes to packaging of over-the-counter drugs, making subsequent incidents of drug tampering much less likely.
But I found it intriguing that two of the experts I consulted related recent examples of product tampering that they requested I not repeat for fear of copycats.
It’s a legitimate concern.
After the Tylenol tampering, four people were killed by cynanide-laced Excedrin and Sudafed.
In 2018, a 21-year-old Australian man bit into a strawberry and swallowed part of a needle that someone had inserted into the fruit. After that incident was widely reported, needles turned up in apples, mangoes and bananas across Australia — all apparently the work of copycats.
Right around the same time razor blades were being inserted last year into pizza dough in Maine, a British man named Nigel Wright was sentenced to 14 years in prison in London for placing metal shards into Heinz baby food jars and trying to blackmail a major supermarket chain.
So, yeah, this sort of thing doesn’t happen a lot. But it happens.
And the danger of copycats makes me wonder if at least some cases of product tampering go unreported to prevent further incidents.
As UCLA’s Tang pointed out, we’re living in extraordinary times. And some people nowadays are extraordinarily angry.
“Violence against Asians used to be extremely rare,” he told me. “Now it’s more prevalent.”
I’m not trying to scare people. But do yourself a favor: Closely inspect all packaged food and drugs before consuming them.
You never know.