Food Tampering: How to Protect Food From Deliberate Contamination

Typically when we talk about food safety in retail, we're focused on preventing foodborne illness from naturally occurring pathogens using time and temperature control (TCS) or cross-contamination avoidance.

We don't often discuss deliberate food tampering, in part because it's much less common than accidental food poisoning.

However, food tampering is a food safety threat, and it's one that restaurants and other food retailers may not consider often enough. We often leave this issue to food producers and processors, but as we'll see, food tampering can and does happen at the retail level.

What Is Food Tampering?

Food tampering is a kind of product tampering in which food products are deliberately altered or contaminated with the intent of causing harm.

It's different from accidental contamination during production, manufacturing, or preparation, but it has the same basic categories: physical contamination (like glass or needles), chemical contamination (like bleach or various poisons), and biological contamination (which can be microbial or the body parts/fluids of larger organisms). Some of the prevention methods are also similar.

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When Does Food Tampering Happen?

Intentional food tampering can happen at any point in the supply chain, from processing and manufacturing to storage to retail and service.

Deliberate contamination of food can happen up until the moment it reaches its consumer.

A 1984 FDA study also found that product tampering is sort of contagious – malicious food tampering cases come in waves, as people hear about incidents and get the idea to tamper for their own reasons.

Among other things, this means you need to be especially on guard with preventative measures when there have been high-profile tampering cases in the news.

Who Intentionally Tampers with Food and Why?

Past food tampering cases have taught us that just about anyone can commit intentional food contamination, from employees to members of the general public.

While deliberate food contamination involves wanting to "cause harm," the target and the degree of maliciousness vary.

Sometimes the intent to harm isn't particularly well thought out. Intentional food contamination can be a childish prank or petty revenge, like spitting in a rude customer's drink. It can also be motivated by the intent to steal, like a delivery driver who sneaks a few French fries on the road.

Other times, product tampering is meant to harm a business, industry, process, or product. Disgruntled employees (current or former), competitors, and even activists may engage in malicious food tampering to hurt your reputation or bottom line by causing a food poisoning outbreak or sanitation scandal.

Finally, malicious tampering with food can be motivated by the desire to cause serious injury, illness, or even death for the consumer.

Sometimes the target is a single individual – an Excedrin tampering case in 1986 was found to be a woman's cover for murdering her husband.

The target might be an entire group of people. The U.S. FDA considers food tampering a potential avenue for bioterrorism.

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What Is The Best Way To Protect Food From Deliberate Tampering?

If you're the manager of a restaurant or food retailer, you need to include add anti-tampering steps to your food safety plan. Luckily, many of the steps overlap with the safety steps you should be taking already.

Source with Food Tampering in Mind

Since product tampering can happen anywhere along the chain, you want to purchase from reputable manufacturers and vendors that have their own anti-tampering mechanisms in place.

To prevent and indicate in-transit tampering, you should look for suppliers that ship all products in tamper-evident packaging. Tamper-evident packaging is anything that seals so that it's immediately obvious when a product is opened and resealed.

In retail products, tamper-evident packaging is incredibly common, growing in popularity ever since the infamous 1982 Tylenol tampering case. These days, most retail items sold for human consumption (like processed foods, beverages, drugs, and supplements) come with some form of seal – and often, more than one.

However, when food ships to a business like a restaurant, tamper-evident packaging isn't universal. You should look for vendors that provide this assurance.

Inspect Deliveries and Refuse Products with Signs of Tampering

Inspection should already be part of your receiving process, to check for signs of spoiling or poor temperature control.

Checking the integrity of the packaging is important for preventing both accidental and deliberate contamination. Check all anti-tampering seals and examine the integrity of the rest of the packaging, as well.

Refuse delivery of any products that are punctured, torn, damaged, or otherwise compromised.

Build In Mechanisms to Monitor for In-Store or In-Kitchen Tampering

Since food tampering can happen on-premises, you need a few policies to prevent any tampering from impacting a consumer.

In a grocery or convenience store, this might mean that employees are trained to set aside any damaged or unsealed items they come across during check-out or inventory.

In a food service establishment, this might mean a quick quality/damage check before items are used in the kitchen, as well as a zero-tolerance policy – backed by monitoring – for employees that tamper with people's food.

Use Tamper-Evident Delivery Packaging

Sealing your delivery or grab-and-go orders became popular during the pandemic, but food tampering is a good reason to keep up the practice. According to a survey, nearly 30% of delivery drivers admit to sneaking food from your bags.

These drivers probably don't consider this food tampering, but it is. They're introducing potential pathogens and compromising food quality. A simple seal, in the form of a sticker or tape, can remove the temptation and reassure your customers that their food arrived intact.

There are also tamper-evident or tamper-resistant delivery containers that convey additional benefits. Airtight containers with strong seals can prevent spoilage and spillage, preserve the quality of the food, and keep it safe from contamination with airborne germs (from the common cold to COVID-19).

Train Everyone in Food Safety Principles

Food safety is a team sport. Everyone who handles food in your establishment needs to know the principles, potential threats, and prevention methods to keep your customers safe and your business thriving.

While some jurisdictions mandate food handler training, it's actually important for everyone. Required or not, you can improve food safety effectively and efficiently by requiring state-approved, ANSI-accredited online food safety training for all your employees.

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