The Great Pepsi Panic

The first complaint came from an elderly couple in Tacoma, Wash., Earl and Mary Triplett. The second came from a woman in Federal Way, Wash., 10 miles from Tacoma-and suddenly, consumers all over the country seemed to be finding hypodermic syringes in cans of Diet Pepsi. How did they get there? No one seemed to know, but the parallel to previous tampering scares, such as the 1982 Tylenol case, seemed all too obvious. Within days, the Pepsi-Cola Co. and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration were swamped with tampering reports from consumers in more than 20 states. Though most involved syringes-a woman in Portland, Ore., said she found two in a single glass-the list of items allegedly recovered from Pepsi, Diet Pepsi and Caffeine Free Diet Pepsi included a wood screw, a bullet, a crack vial, a broken sewing needle and a blob of mysterious brown

There were no reports of deaths or serious injuries, and no indication that any kind of poison had been found in the cans of soda. Still, FDA officials were compelled to take the alarm seriously. Since the first two cases involved cans from Alpac Corp., a Pepsi bottler in Washington state, the FDA warned consumers in the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and Hawaii to pour their soda into a glass before drinking. That way, FDA Commissioner David Kessler reasoned, no one would be harmed if more syringes were found. By restricting the consumer alerts to Alpac's marketing area, Kessler said, the FDA could avoid a nationwide panic and the possibility of copycat incidents.

It didn't work. As the Diet Pepsi scare turned into a national media circus, new complaints poured in from places like Heidelberg, Pa., Monticello, Iowa, and Mustang, Okla. What had started out as a local incident was threatening to turn into a multimillion-dollar disaster for the PepsiCola Co. Pepsi's high command mobilized a crisis team to protect its trademark. The team considered a voluntary recall but, as company spokesman Andrew Giangola said, "the FDA told us there was no need, that there wasn't a health risk."

The crisis team analyzed the reports and saw no logical pattern. "We knew all along this wasn't a manufacturing issue," Giangola said. "Canning lines are high-speed production lines in which cans are inverted upside down, shot with a blast of air or water and then [turned] right side up and filled." Since the cans are open for only nine-tenths of a second, he said, "it would be highly unlikely for one needle to find its way into a can. And it would be astronomically improbable to have numerous needles in different cans in different states, produced months apart, and then have them all somehow show up in a 48-hour period. It was absolutely ludicrous."

Pepsi president Craig Weatherup went on television to explain and defend his product. At the FDA, Kessler said, investigators found that many of the tampering claims "could not be substantiated or verified." On Tuesday, not long before Kessler and Weatherup appeared on ABC's "Nightline" to debunk the nationwide frenzy, the agency announced the first arrest on charges of filing a false report, a federal offense punishable by five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

Then Pepsi got lucky. In Aurora, Colo., a surveillance camera at a supermarket counter caught a woman shopper in what appeared to be the act of inserting a syringe into a can of Diet Pepsi. The image was blurred-the woman's attorney later questioned whether she was really the person on the videotape-but Pepsi officials happily copied it for distribution to the news media all across the country. The shopper, Gail Levine, 61, was arrested on federal charges of tainting a consumer product and intends to plead not guilty. But a federal investigator said that Levine had a long criminal record for forgery, fraud and larceny, as well as 16 aliases. "Do you want me to smile?" she asked news photographers at a hearing.

False reports: Still, reports of Pepsi-tampering continued to bubble up all over. Kessler, trying to stop the epidemic in its tracks, called a press conference in Washington to insist that "the notion of a nationwide tampering of Diet Pepsi is unfounded." And while he conceded that any product is vulnerable to tampering, Kessler suggested that "the complaints of the past week follow the classic pattern" of copycat hoaxes. By the weekend, the Associated Press counted more than 50 tampering claims-and more than a dozen arrests for allegedly filing false reports. Some complainants were obviously pranksters, while others seemed to be trying to cash in on spurious injury claims. A few seemed only to want the attention of the news media-a paltry kind of fame. "You feel sad that people are driven to this kind of behavior," Kessler said. Sad or silly, the whole affair was one more demonstration of America's long fascination with get-rich-quick litigation-and the new vogue for victim chic as well.