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IRVINE, Calif. - The recent headline-grabbing food-tampering incident at a Ralph's here, involving baby food adulterated with a potentially deadly substance, has sparked consumer fears about the safety of products on grocery shelves, but retailers operating in areas close to the affected store are quick to reassure the public that they're serious about keeping such already rare incidences to an absolute minimum.
Randall Oliver, spokesman at Commerce, Calif.-based Smart & Final, told Progressive Grocer: "Basically, I think all retailers have been at a heightened alert since Sept. 11, 2001. Smart & Final is adhering to all recommendations from the FDA and the Department of Homeland Security. Also, the Food Marketing Institute has been on the forefront of this issue, and we're working with them, as well."
Alluding to the tampered jars in the Ralphs case, Oliver continued, "I think it's worth noting that the tamper-proof containers from the manufacturer do appear to have worked. It's sad that this type of thing has to happen ever, but when products are tampered with, it's usually pretty clear that the seals have been broken and they're doing their job."
Oliver declined to comment on particular steps Smart & Final was taking to reduce tampering incidents, but he concluded, "We are working very closely with the appropriate agencies and doing everything possible to make sure that our stores are as safe as possible and that the food supply is as safe as possible."
Karen Brown, FMI's s.v.p., told Progressive Grocer that there were several general measures retailers were undertaking to guard against tampering, among them security cameras, employees positioned where there were no sight lines, and a policy when servicing store shelves of checking for packages that might be compromised. She added that "consumers should continue to be vigilant about tampered packages" by doing such things as reporting anything odd they see to management.
Brown noted that many tampering incidences turn out to be hoaxes, which she pointed out are also criminal acts, and that therefore "the media should very measured in how and what they report" in such cases, since the press attention and subsequent public brouhaha were just what such hoaxers wanted.
Late last week Charles Dewey Cage was interviewed by area police as a possible witness in the Ralphs case, in which two jars of Gerber's Banana Yogurt Dessert were found to be laced with a mild form of the poison ricin. Cage, his lawyer, and the Orange County District Attorney's Office have said that Cage is not a suspect in the crimes, and Cage maintains that he has no knowledge of who committed them.