Burning legal question: Are there legal ramifications when you tamper with someone’s food?

Burning legal question: Are there legal ramifications when you tamper with someone’s food?

Okay, let’s get the burning question out of the way: the answer is yes.

There is a law against tampering with consumer products which covers food, too. Punishment can either be a fine or imprisonment, depending on the severity of the crime.

But as usual, the complexity of food tampering cases is as varied as pizza or Kit Kat. There are clear-cut cases and curious ones that will have you scratching your head.

Gerber scare of 1986

In February 1986., broken glass was reportedly found in some Gerber baby food jars in Schenectady, New York,. An investigation exonerated Gerber, but news outlets had picked up the story. Panic spread as several other states reported similar incidents. Parents stopped buying Gerber, and the company faced a crisis in consumer confidence despite no injuries reported.

After extensive testing, investigators couldn’t determine a definitive source for the glass contamination. And no person or group claimed responsibility for tampering with Gerber products.

Gerber stood firm in their decision not to recall their baby food products despite certain groups criticizing the food company for treating the issue with kid’s gloves.

Girl Scout Cookies in 1984

In 1984, reports spread nationwide that several boxes of the beloved Girl Scout Cookies contained extra ingredients: pins, needles, and other foreign objects. Those contaminated cookies reportedly caused pierced lips and injured gums across 15 states. The Girl Scouts had to hit pause on their cookie selling.

The fallout of the cookie scare was a loss of more than 25% of their sales that year, which forced the organization to drop some of its programs.

An FBI investigation concluded in 1985 that there was no grand cookie conspiracy, just a bunch of false alarms and copycat cases. Still, it took some time for Girl Scout Cookie sales to rebound to pre-scare levels and for the organization’s reputation to recover, but that’s how the cookie crumbled.

Jell-O Pudding in 2010

Alexander and Christine Clement, a couple in their sixties, felt that paying $1.40 for a pack of Jell-O pudding powder was too much and embarked on a scheme to have their pudding and eat it too.

In 2010, they purchased the products, removed the mixes, and refilled the boxes with bags containing salt and sand. Then they returned the boxes to the store and asked for a refund. They managed to hit four local stores before they got caught.

How? A customer who bought one of their tampered boxes complained. Investigators checked surveillance video which eventually led the police to arrest the Clements.

The cops concluded that the couple weren’t terrorists out to harm people, and instead charged the Clements with petty theft and tampering. The Bonnie and Clyde of pudding got their just desserts.

Vegan gone wrong in 2020

In 2020, a Redditor shared an incident involving a vegan roommate.

Years ago when she was still in college, Redditor took in Erin, a vegetarian who was okay with having non-vegan housemates. The morning after she moved in, Erin decided to “do something nice” for her roommates and cooked breakfast: pancakes, bacon, and hash browns. She didn’t mention that the bacon was a meat substitute with ingredients Redditor was severely allergic to. Anaphylactic shock followed, leading to Redditor’s hospitalization and incurring substantial medical expenses. Erin was apologetic, saying she didn’t disclose the meat substitute to prove to her housemates that “it tastes exactly like meat.”

Two things were not in Erin’s favor: (1) their other roommate shot a video of the breakfast to post on Instagram; (2) Redditor’s uncle had a friend who’s a lawyer. Upon recovering, Redditor slapped Erin with a food tampering lawsuit and won. Erin lost her scholarship, dropped out, and faced financial woes.

Opinions varied in the Reddit comments section. Some believed Erin deserved punishment for her deception. Others thought the Redditor should share responsibility for not disclosing her allergies. Some found Erin's repercussions excessively harsh.

But there was one thing everyone agreed on: food tampering is a felony.

Food tampering should never be considered as a joke or a prank. Regardless of intention, food tampering can have serious consequences. If you need a lawyer for personal injury or family matters, contact our Buckingham, LaGrandeur, & Williams team. Or if you’re in Washington State, drop by our offices in Renton.