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Needles in strawberries, cyanide in Tylenol: the long history of product tampering

Australia’s strawberry problem has one thing in common with tampering scares in decades past: copycats.

A berry worker in Queensland, Australia, processes strawberries in the wake of the national needle scare.
Patrick Hamilton/AFP/Getty Images
Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

Needles are turning up in strawberries in grocery stores all over Australia right now. This is very bad for reasons that are, well, quite obvious, but also because, if history is any indication, the practice is likely to keep spreading.

The crisis arose earlier this month when a 21-year-old man in Queensland swallowed a portion of a needle after biting into a strawberry and was reportedly hospitalized for abdominal pain. Since then, needles have been discovered in other fruits like mangoes, apples, and bananas in all six Australian states, according to police, with more than 100 reports in total.

In response, strawberry brands have recalled their products, major grocery chains like Coles and Aldi have pulled them from shelves, and Woolworths has stopped selling sewing needles at its stores. Queensland authorities have put out a $100,000 reward for information that leads to the culprits’ capture, while Australia’s parliament passed a law Thursday increasing the maximum prison term from 10 years to 15 years for those convicted of tampering with food.

The strawberry industry, meanwhile, is reeling, with thousands of workers affected. The Queensland government has announced an AU$1 million assistance package for farmers, some of whom have had to dump their entire harvests at the peak of the season.

What’s happening in Australia is just the latest in a decades-long tradition of product tampering, whose motivations range from the political to the mundane. In the case of Australia, it’s unclear who is to blame. A young child admitted to inserting needles into strawberries as “a prank,” and New South Wales police said they would deal with the individual within the youth cautioning system. Police in Queensland also caught a 62-year-old woman putting a needle into a banana, although according to the Telegraph, the case did not appear to be linked to the other incidents.

What is clear, however, is that the Australian government is highly concerned about copycat attacks — police believe that many of the incidents beyond Queensland are the work of people looking to imitate the original sabotage.

And they should be concerned: Product tampering, or “commercial terrorism,” as one representative for the Queensland Strawberry Growers Association put it, isn’t new, and copycat attacks are one of the most common threads between every case.

A short history of product tampering

The first major instance of product tampering in the American consciousness occurred in the fall of 1982, when seven people in the Chicago area died from taking extra-strength Tylenol that had been laced with lethal amounts of potassium cyanide. In one particularly horrific instance, a victim’s brother and sister-in-law visited the victim’s home to console their loved ones and, after experiencing headaches, took the very Tylenol pills that unknowingly killed their sibling. Both died within two days.

The Tylenol murders are the reason we have tamper-proof seals on pills to this day. Johnson & Johnson, the maker of Tylenol, worked with Food and Drug Administration officials to develop tamper-proof packaging like foil seals, which then became part of the administration’s federal guidelines. And in 1983, Congress passed the “Tylenol bill,” making it a federal offense to tamper with consumer products.

But despite these measures, the culprits were never found, and the murders inspired various copycats for the next few years, possibly exacerbated by the swarm of media coverage. The FDA found 36 credible instances of product tampering around the country in the months following the Chicago attacks, from needles in candy corn and chocolate bars to chocolate milk with traces of sodium hydroxide.

Within a few years, there were two instances of people either killing or attempting to kill their spouses by lacing common medicine with cyanide and then placing the laced pills back on store shelves in an effort to cover up the crime. Both ended up killing unsuspecting customers.

In 1984, there were instances of needles and paperclips being found in Girl Scout cookies in up to 15 states, largely made up of copycats of a St. Louis area incident. In 1989, baby food in the UK was found to contain glass and razor blades, an attack organized by a man intending to blackmail H.J. Heinz, the country’s largest baby food maker. Though at first there were only a few reports, after police issued warnings to parents, copycat attacks followed, with more than 300 reported cases nationwide. While no one was arrested in connection with the contaminations, a few people were arrested for hoaxes.

An instance similar to the Tylenol murders also occurred in Japan in 1985, when 10 people were killed and 35 were left seriously ill from a poisonous herbicide that had been inserted into beverages in vending machines. According to the New York Times, “The randomness of the killings and the inability of the police thus far to catch those responsible has spread concern throughout the country. One byproduct has been a spurt of copycat crimes. Twice in the last few weeks, for example, someone has left tainted containers of milk in schools in Mie Prefecture in central Japan.”

The pattern certainly wasn’t confined to the 1980s. In 2003, a so-called “Aquabomber” was injecting bleach and acetone into plastic water bottles in Italy, sending nearly a dozen people to the hospital. Italians reported more than 20 cases throughout the country, some of which police attributed to the work of copycats.

Why product tampering is often done by copycats

When the Japanese vending machine attacks occurred, psychologists attributed it to a “new breed of thrill-seeking criminal” known as yukaihan. “They cynically enjoy superiority by imagining the victims groaning, and do not feel any remorse,” professor Susumu Oda, a mental health specialist at Tsukuba University northeast of Tokyo, said at the time.

Psychiatrists at the time of the Tylenol murders speculated that the copycats were due to “emotionally immature people who find an excuse to vent their latent hostile emotions when a ‘leader’ like the Tylenol killer shows them the way.”

Of course, the copycat effect isn’t limited to cases of product tampering. Serial killers, subway slashers, suicides, school shootings — even YouTube pranks — are all subject to the same phenomenon.

A 2004 book, The Copycat Effect, explores the role the media plays in encouraging the spread of such behaviors and possible ways to prevent it. Instead of oversaturating the news with details about the perpetrator, for instance, more focus should be placed on the victims. The media also shouldn’t be providing lurid, step-by-step details on how these crimes happen, according to author Loren Coleman, nor write articles that contribute to the criminal’s need for attention.

In the case of the strawberry attacks, Melbourne psychologist and professor Dr. Michelle Noon said that it’s difficult to pin down precisely the type of person who would insert needles into fruit, but it’s likely that the motivation comes from seeing their crime making headlines.

“There is a suggestion that copycat crime is predicted by media and community interest,” she explained to “Media and community interest is likely to be driving it, but this media coverage is giving people an idea of what crime to commit — not the reason or the motive to commit crime full stop.”

Which might mean that as long as Australia’s needles-in-fruit crisis is making international news, the attacks could spread, with increasingly dangerous consequences.