Malicious tampering with food and drink products is a very sensitive subject. Trying to get hard data about how widespread attempts by consumers to fraudulently claim they have discovered "foreign objects" in products they buy, or how frequently disaffected workers deliberately contaminate products in the factory, is virtually impossible.
The Food Standards Agency (FSA) operates an 'incident desk' for reporting occurrences of malicious product tampering (MPT), so it should be best placed to know. But it is very reluctant to say much because of the "sensitivity"of the subject. However, other experts in the field ̶ even if they know ̶ are equally reluctant to divulge too many details for fear of encouraging 'copy-cat' incidents by the public or workers in factories.
Even the police don't appear to have a central database of incidents that involve them.
And goodness knows how many fraudulent consumers claims for compensation made to big food and drink brand owners and retailers go unreported because they are dealt with covertly by the companies involved. Of course, they don't want to air their dirty linen in public.
So, it seems likely that nobody knows for sure what the extent of the problem is. And those who have some idea are not talking.
The insurance industry, which is equally reticent about discussing numbers, makes use of MPT and extortion experts such as Shane Russell from global security firm Red24 to advise clients on precautionary measures and investigate serious incidents. However, Russell admits there are serious problems with both consumer and worker contamination.
Professor Tony Hines, head of food security and crisis management at Leatherhead Food Research, believes the biggest problem these days is with MPT involving the public. "It is always important to remember that foreign bodies can be introduced during manufacturing, in retail or in the home," says Hines. "I think a lot [of MPT] happens in the home .... Disgruntled employees have been around forever. I've got no real evidence of it getting any worse. But it is difficult to get that information."
Hines has years' of experience in helping companies with MPT and consumer complaint management. He has also worked closely with bodies such as the FSA and Ministry of Defence on crisis planning to mitigate the risks of bioterrorism ̶ most recently for last year's Olympic Games in London.
While MPT caused by disgruntled workers in food factories still goes on, the number of incidents has fallen back from a few years ago when there were some high-profile cases involving workers putting glass into food ̶ including one famous case in the 1980s involving baby food, which resulted in a number of other copycat claims from consumers.
According to experts in the field, factory incidents have reduced thanks to the adoption of modern manufacturing practices, which reduce the opportunity for workers to tamper with food. It can be attributed to better management and traceability of operations and staffing, as well as better process monitoring and the use of metal and X-ray detection equipment, which picks up both accidental contamination as well as MPT.
And there are other practical measures that can be put in place to reduce the risks even further, says Russell, such as the use of CCTV as a deterrent. While for many this will smack of 'Big Brother', it has already been recommended by the FSA as a means of stamping out animal cruelty in abattoirs.
However, incidents still occur. Only last August chilled food company Bakavvör had to call in the police to investigate a case of MPT at one of its plants, which cost it £1M. And with disputes between management and staff on the increase, with wages restrained, factories earmarked for closure and workers for redundancy, the temptation by some to take a warped revenge on their employers could increase.
"Managing a disgruntled employee is very difficult as you saw with that case a few years ago where that guy walked around factory with a bag of peanuts," says Hines. "The important thing for businesses to recognise is that intentional contamination requires human intervention. We manage pathogens by hazard analysis critical control points .... So we need to manage our people and we need to remove people very quickly and be very alert to people who might be a high risk." Russell agrees.
However, it would be wrong to assume that all MPT in factories is an attempt to inflict serious injury by contamination of products with items such as razor blades and ground glass. Sometimes, the incidents arise from staff who are bored and think it would be "a bit of a joke"to put a condom or sanitary pad string in an item of food or drink ̶ little caring that such behaviour could put their own jobs in jeopardy.
Russell notes that the widespread use of temporary staff can also raise the risk of MPT since, she claims, they are less likely to have the same commitment as full-time staff.
Staff cover up
And then there is the separate, but related, problem of staff trying to cover up when things go wrong, says Matthew Breakwell, a solicitor with legal firm Gordons, which works with food manufacturers and retailers. He cites a recent example where the records for a refrigerated lorry transporting food were altered to cover up a refrigeration failure, which compromised the safety of the chilled food it contained. And, of course, there was the covert TV filming of supermarket staff the other year changing the labels on out-of-date products.
The two recent recalls involving plastic contaminants accidentally finding their way into Nestlé's Kit Kat Chunky and KP Snacks' potato chips illustrates that the industry will never totally eliminate accidental cases of contamination. But the question is, where no processing fault has been identified in the factory, how do businesses differentiate attempts by individuals to fraudulently seek compensation? And how do they prevent it becoming an even bigger problem in the future?
For donkeys' years people have made money out of bogus food contamination claims. But Hines suggests things got worse about 10 ̶ 15 years ago when manufacturers introduced freephone numbers on packaging, making it easier for people to register complaints.
More recently, the widespread use of email and social networking through services such as Twitter and Facebook, and complaint web sites, such as the South African www.hellopeter.com, have added a new dimension, making it even easier for people to raise the profile of their complaints.
Power to the people
"The problem is that consumers now know the power that they have got," says Russell. "And they know how damaging it is to a company if something negative about them is put on Facebook .... The problem for the company is if that is posted on social media web site they will inevitably have other people who see it and think, oh I can get some compensation."
She adds: "I worked on [a case] recently where a woman posted on Facebook that she had found glass in chocolate chip cookies. And low and behold suddenly all sorts of other consumers also found glass in their cookies." So, monitoring social media chatter is crucial.
Hines believes life hasn't been helped by the 'compensation culture' that has emerged in the UK, where people want something for nothing. Rather than seeking a few quid, individuals these days are looking for much larger sums in the £100s and £1,000s he says. It doesn't help that there are more legal firms offering 'no-win, no fee' services, he adds.
Because factory production is so carefully controlled, investigators are always suspicious about complaints involving "fairly outrageous foreign bodies", says Hines. "It is inconceivable that a foreign body of this type could be introduced into products during manufacture," he argues. Even so, both Hines and Russell agree that complainants should be informed that their cases are being taken seriously and fully investigated.
To test the seriousness of such complaints and separate the real cases from the malicious ones, Hines suggests "putting up hurdles". This may range from suggestions of police involvement, to requests for access to medical records where personal injury has been claimed. Complaints for teeth broken by hard foreign objects in food have increased over recent years, he adds. And there are fears about spiralling medical costs for claims associated with food poisoning, he says.
"In the US, for example, someone got $250,000 for a lifetime's treatment after breaking their tooth on a tortilla chip," says Hines. "Now that is a serious amount of money."
While complainants can use social media and the internet to publicise incidents, they can equally be used by those on the receiving end to investigate the background of those complaining, says Hines. Also, serial complainers tend to make errors that can be easily picked by those investigating, he adds. Meanwhile, most big brands and supermarkets maintain extensive databases that help to flag up the rogues.
But it's imperative to have crisis management plans in place should things go wrong. These go well beyond product recall plan, remarks Russell. "Employees don't necessarily want to damage the company," says Russell. "But if they are approached by journalists at the factory gate and are told there has been a complaint about, say glass in one of your products, the last thing you want them to say is: 'Oh God, we get complaints all the time'."
Hines puts the issue of malicious product contamination into perspective: "We're probably never going to cure it completely." And, he adds, the cases grabbing the biggest headlines aren't necessarily the ones posing the biggest risks: "You can probably cause more mischief with peanuts than you could with a razor blade."
However, as complainants and their representatives become more sophisticated; as the potential rewards for MPT become greater; and as the damage to brands escalates, some firms may decide there is merit in taking a few high-profile prosecutions as a deterrent to others.