Tamper-evident packaging could foil terrorists
By Phyllis Picklesimer, Media/Communications Specialist University of Illinois College Urbana-Champaign
The recent discovery of ricin, a toxin from castor beans, in London has raised concern that terrorists could contaminate food at either the point of manufacture or after its been put out for consumption in grocery stores and restaurants, but tamper-evident packaging in use today means terrorists would have a difficult time contaminating large numbers of food packages.
Tamper-evident packaging has been in use since the drug-tampering scares in the early 1980s, said Scott Morris, an expert on food packaging at the University of Illinois.
Although tamper-evident seals are not required on foodstuffs, the food industry already has a high level of tamper evidence on most products.
Morris says that tamper-evident packaging includes such things as twist-locks, ring pulls, pop-tops, shrink seals and blister-packs. They are commonly used in food packaging not only because they provide evidence of tampering but also because they keep foods fresh.
Consumers usually know enough to look for overt signs of tampering, and they know that they should avoid products with an open seal, he said. No seal is completely foolproof, but they work reasonably well as a first line of defense.
Other products, such as cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, and cleaning agents, could also be used to infect or poison people, and there is already concern about diluted and counterfeit pharmaceuticals in the United States.
The Food and Drug Administration is investigating better ways of protecting the food supply, and recently it issued new voluntary guidelines for food producers, processors, transporters, and retailers. Food plants are also making security a primary concern, said Morris.
Another comforting fact is that the food industry is capable of doing large-scale recalls very efficiently because of its experience with food-poisoning cases.
Such recalls are now done almost preemptively. If there is an outbreak, the food industry aggressively tracks down the rest of the product and gets it off the shelves very quickly, he said.
Morris has been working with the U of I Bioacoustics Lab in the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology to image food seals and determine how large a defect in a seal must be to become a contamination problem. The research was prompted by the militarys concern about the safety of food in their MRE (meal ready-to-eat) packages. The technologies to make tamper evidence even more secure are there if people are willing to pay for them, Morris said, But consumer or governmental demand that would prompt industry to make new investments in more secure technologies isnt there yet.
Morris says right now people are getting the level of security that theyre willing to pay for. More security would require significant changes at the production, distribution, and retail facilities. This would be a huge and expensive task. Look at the way the airlines scan and search purses and briefcases at the airport. Would shoppers put up with that level of inconvenience when they enter a grocery store? asked Morris.
If people start getting nervous about the food supply, however, Morris believes they may be willing to pay extra for a more restrictive packaging. He notes that this packaging would also be more difficult for the end user to open. And, no doubt, the product would end up costing more, too. If someone wants to tamper with a product badly enough, they will find a way to do it. But I believe we can make it more difficult, and thats what were trying to do.