History's Most Notorious Cases Of Food Tampering, Contamination

Cases of malicious or opportunistic food tampering and food contamination have spanned the centuries.

Over the past week, the strawberry contamination scare has gripped the country like no other story. Unsuspecting Aussies have been surprised mid-chew by sewing needles or found them hidden inside their fruit, with new cases cropping up daily.  A sabotaged strawberry has already sent one Queensland man to hospital.

While investigations are well underway, officials have so far been unable to identify a motive or name any suspects.

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Needles have now been found inside strawberries in every state. (Image: Facebook)

While certainly frightening, the latest scare is nothing new. Cases of malicious or opportunistic food tampering and food contamination have spanned the centuries.

One of the most well documented was the 'Swill Milk' scandal, which plagued New York City in the 1850s and killed more than 8,000 children in 1857 alone, according to the New York Times. Less serious was the case of an elderly couple in 2010, who hatched a plot to score free chocolate pudding.  The pair bought boxes of powdered mix at four area grocery stores, removed the confection, replaced it with sandwich bags filled with salt and sand, resealed the boxes and returned them for full refunds, before being caught with sticky fingers, so to speak.

READ MORE: The Psychology Behind Copycat Crimes And Community Fear

Motives can certainly be more nefarious, ranging from greed to revenge to homicide, while some cases have been put down to mental illness.  Others remain unsolved.

We take a look back at eight notorious cases of food tampering and food contamination over the last 60 years.

Tylenol – 1982

Perhaps the most infamous unsolved tampering case is that of the Tylenol murders, in which seven people died after taking over-the-counter pain killers laced with cyanide.

The deaths rocked the Chicago area in the early 1980s and prompted some of the world's first anti-tampering packaging for consumer products.  At the time, bottles of medication had no plastic sealing on their lids, and could easily be opened and adulterated.

In September 1982, bottles of Extra Strength Tylenol were linked to multiple deaths, after the victims all took the medication within a few days of purchase. Police eliminated both the the production and distribution process of the drug as the origin of the poisoning – instead the perpetrator likely bought bottles from chemists, laced them with cyanide at a different location, and returned them to store shelves some time later.  A total of five bottles were responsible for the seven deaths, with three more tampered bottles found before they were purchased.

Several copycat incidents were later linked to more deaths. The case remains a mystery – no one has ever been charged or prosecuted for the murders, which stopped as abruptly as they started.

Drugstore clerk removes Tylenol capsules from the shelves of a pharmacy September 30, 1982 after reports of tampering. Seven people have died in Chicago after taking Tylenol. (Photo by Yvonne Hemsey/Getty Images)
Lollies – 1984

One of the more bizarre cases of product tampering involved not only poisoned product, but a depraved kidnapping and multiple extortion plots that terrorised Japan in the 1980s.

While nobody died as a direct result, a police superintendent did take his own life by self immolation, seemingly due to officials' inability to catch the culprit.

The drama kicked off in May 1984 with a violent home invasion, when three masked gunmen burst into the home of Katsuhisa Ezaki, the president of Osaka-based lolly company Ezaki Glico, and tied up his family before abducting him.

The kidnappers demanded cash and gold bullion for his release, but he managed to escape on his own three days later. Later, letters were sent to Ezaki Gilco executives claiming boxes of  lollies had been laced with cyanide. The threatening notes were signed 'The Monster with 21 Faces'.

After several more extortion attempts, a few car fires and a train chase, the 'Monster' set its sights on another candy company, Morinaga, and sent letters to media warning "Moms of the nation" that cyanide-spiked lollies had been placed on store shelves across the country.  In total, 21 packages of poisoned candy were seized after a massive search.  The perpetrator had kindly labelled the tainted boxes "Danger: Contains Toxins."

The statute of limitations to prosecute the case expired in the year 2000, and the case remains unsolved.

Wanted poster of a suspect linked to the case. (Image: Isaac Meyer)
Baby food - 2017

A sinister extortion plot sent shoppers in south west Germany into a panic in September 2017, when police released a photo of a man suspected of tampering with baby food.

The perpetrator was caught on security camera inside several grocery stores, shortly before police recovered baby food jars laced with traces of ethylene glycol, a  sweet, toxic ingredient found in antifreeze.

Letters demanding nearly $20 million were sent to retailers, threatening a wider poisoning epidemic.

No injuries were reported, and the man was eventually arrested.

Baby food from different producers can be seen at a supermarket in Kaarst, Germany, 26 October 2017.  (Photo by Marcel Kusch/picture alliance via Getty Images)
Oranges - 1978

Several people across Europe, including a number of children in the Netherlands, were sent to hospital after eating oranges with "pea-sized" balls of mercury injected inside, in a politically motivated tampering case in the late 1970s.

A Palestinian terrorist group dubbed the Arab Revolutionary Army claimed responsibility for the poisonings, and said it had sabotaged the fruit in an attempt to damage one of Israel's  largest exports, and in turn, its economy. The same militant group earlier took responsibility for the murder of an United Arab Emirates government minister at Abu Dhabi airport.

The mercury-laced fruit turned up in five countries across the continent, but no fatalities were reported.

Oranges growing in Israel, 1970s. (Photo by: Seidel/United Archives/UIG via Getty Images)
Halloweeen candy - 1959

Every year on October 31 in America, young trick-or-treaters keen to fill up their lolly bags are warned about razor blades in candy apples.  While for one night only it's custom for children to flout the cardinal rule of 'don't take candy from strangers,' it turns out that sharp objects inside sweets is actually something of an urban legend.

But rumours of tainted candy abound, and many believe they began in 1959 with the story of a disgruntled dentist in Fremont, California .  Dr William Shyne, DDS, spent the holiday cheerfully doling out lollies to children – along with more than 450 candy-coated laxatives.

Kids who downed the treats spent the night with severe gastro symptoms, including vomiting and diarrhea, and several ended up in hospital.

Shyne was eventually convicted of "outraging public decency," but no motive for the poisoning was ever established.

Dr William Shyne handed out 450 laxatives along with lollies in one of the first cases of Halloween candy poisoning. (Image: Getty)
Bottled water - 2003

In the early 2000s, Italy was terrorised by the so-called 'Aquabomber', who poisoned bottles of mineral water with household bleach and acetone.  The perpetrator used a needle to inject the caustic substance into the bottles through their necks.

More than two dozen people, including children and babies, were sent to hospital, many suffering burns to their throats and damage to their intestinal tracts.

The poisonings spread to regions across the country, but no deaths were reported. It remains unsolved.

The 'aquabomber' targeted bottled mineral water across Italy. (Image: Getty)
Sizzler - 2006

Sizzlers across Australia shut down their self-service salad bars after rat poison was found in food at two Brisbane restaurants in 2006. A customer reportedly found the rodenticide in her vegetable soup at a store in the city centre, and pellets were also found in pasta sauce at another area eatery.

Security vision allegedly captured a woman placing rat poison pellets in the salad bar spread – though she was charged, she was deemed not mentally fit and the case was referred to the Mental Health Court.

No injuries or illnesses were reported, but the case sparked new laws requiring mandatory and immediate reporting of food tampering.

The Sizzler restaurant in the Brisbane suburb of Toowong, Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2006.  (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)
Rajneeshee bioterror attack - 1984

And capping off the list, in the wake of Netflix's hit docuseries Wild Wild Country (spoilers ahead!), we'll include America's largest ever bioterrorism attack – the poisoning of more than 750 people by salmonella, after the bacteria was spread over salad bars at 10 restaurants in The Dalles, Oregon in the in 1980s.

The poisoning was perpetrated by senior members of the Rajneeshee 'cult', followers of an eccentric Indian guru who established a commune in remote Antelope, Oregon, and were embroiled in a prolonged cold war with the local townsfolk.

The attack was meant to incapacitate the voters of Wasco county, enabling Rajneeshee members to secure two of the three County Circuit Court seats in the election of 1984.

The salmonella, mixed into salad dressing and water and spread over vegetables, was matched to a sample found in a lab inside the Rajneeshee commune.

Nobody died in the attack, but 45 people were sent to hospital. Two senior Rajneeshees were eventually prosecuted on charges of attempted murder and found guilty, but  served less than three years in prison on a plea deal.

Ma Anand Sheela of the Rajneesh sect poses for a mugshot in Mulnomah County, Oregon in 1985. (Photo by Bureau of Prisons/Getty Images)