The Pepsi Product Tampering
Scandal of 1993
On Wednesday, June 9th, retired meat salesman Tex Triplett, 82, of Tacoma, Washington, and his wife, Mary, 78, reported that while looking into a Diet Pepsi can for a prize-winning word to complete the phrase "Be young, have fun, drink Pepsi," they instead found a syringe. They turned the materials over to their attorney, who then contacted the Pierce County Health Department.
Seattle-area TV went with the story on Thursday, June 10th. KIRO anchorman Gary Justice said that the story merited attention because of a local Sudafed tampering in 1991 that killed two residents, and that needles evoked the fear of AIDS.
The Seattle Times reported the story Friday morning, adding that Mary Triplett said that neither she nor her husband had shown signs of being sick.
Another Pepsi-needle claim was made in Washington State on Friday. That weekend, The FDA issued a five-state alert advising consumers to inspect their Diet Pepsi. FDA chief Donald Kessler told the public to "empty the contents of the can into a glass or cup before drinking."
On Sunday night came a similar claim from a woman in the Cleveland area. By 9:30 AM Monday, June 14th, there was another claim. And by the time the day was over, 8 more had been made.
At PepsiCo headquarters in Somers, NY the Pepsi public affairs crisis team huddled, hoping that the new reports would not hit the media. But on Monday afternoon, a New Orleans man was telling CNN his syringe story, and by Monday evening it was the number two story on the Associated Press headlines (Ruth Bader Ginsburg being nominated to the Supreme Court was #1).
That night, Pepsi crisis counselors decided to fight the media crisis with media. "If you're going to conduct your trial in the media, you've got to do it with the tools they're used to working with," said Rebecca Maderia, Pepsi's VP of public affairs. Pepsi North America-CEO Craig Weatherup spoke with FDA Commissioner David Kessler that night, and the two agreed that a product recall was not necessary. Pepsi set up a crisis command center in the company's TV room, which became Weatherup's HQ for the week.
"To make that statement, that the can is 99.9% safe, was our defense. We just tried to explain that in 50 ways," Ms. Madeira said. Of course, this statement, if true, would imply 1,000 unsafe cans for every million that Pepsi produces.
By Tuesday, June 15th, dozens more people from all over the country reported finding needles, pins, screws, a crack cocaine vial, and a bullet in Diet Pepsi cans.
Pepsi began producing video news releases that would be distributed via satellite to local TV stations across the country. Pepsi estimates that the footage was shown on 403 stations, and seen by 187 million viewers.
Christopher J. Burnette, 25, of Williamsport, PA, became the first person arrested and charged with making false claims of hypodermic hysteria.
On Tuesday night, Weatherup and Kessler appeared on "Nightline." The penalties for making fraudulent tampering claims (5 years in prison, $250,000 fine) were emphasized. During this week, John Triebe, Mr. Weatherup's driver, says his boss developed an "electric tension that crackled."
Needle claims were still mounting on Wednesday, June 16th. 24 states had at least one claim. Thanks to Pepsi's efforts, terms like "copycat," and "hoax" started entering the news stories written about them.
In a separate story, authorities disclosed that 14 separate incidents of pins found in bread baked by the LePage Bakery Co. had been reported in four New England states since 1990. A public warning had not been issued earlier because officials were only recently made aware of the extent of the problem.
By Thursday, June 17th, Pepsi executives had the video of a Colorado woman, Gail Levine. A supermarket surveillance camera caught her putting objects into a Diet Pepsi can. Pepsi pressured the FDA to issue a statement calling the incidents a series of hoaxes.
In Thursday's Madison, WI's Capital Times, a 30-year-old newspaper telemarketer named Kitty Wuerl said her story of finding a syringe and needle in a Pepsi can was no hoax. "Mine is definitely true." She had no plans of filing suit against the corporation.
The Food and Drug Administration apologized to the Tripletts after CBS-TV and The Los Angeles Times, quoting FDA officials, reported that the syringe they found may have belonged to a diabetic relative. The Tripletts stopped giving interviews.
More than 60 cases had been reported.
Mr. Weatherup and Dr. Kessler spoke again at 1PM Thursday. At 3:30 PM, Dr. Kessler stated that the FDA had been "unable to confirm even one case of tampering."
Within minutes, a powerful TV news package containing Dr. Kessler's statements with the Colorado footage and narrated by Mr. Weatherup were video news released to the world.
On Friday, July 18th, "Pepsico Inc. declared that its needle-in-the-can scare was over." Ads were prepared: "As America now knows, those stories about Diet Pepsi were a hoax. Plain and simple, not true."
John Sedwick of St. Petersburg, a Prozac-taking arrested can tamperer, told the world, "It just doesn't pay to tamper with cans. You're going to get caught eventually. I'm asking everybody not to do what I did."
Dr. Jonas Rappaport, psychiatric advisor to the Grocery Manufacturers of America said "They want their pictures in the paper."
Officials blamed news accounts for helping spread the week's wave of phony Pepsi tamperings. "There are too many crazy people out there," claimed Jack Cox, director of the Foundation for American Communications in Los Angeles.
Over the weekend, Pepsi took out full page newspaper ads which read "Pepsi is pleased to announce...nothing."
Several weeks later, over the 4th of July holiday, Pepsi took out more ads celebrating its freedom, and gave out coupons with the slogan, "Thanks, America."
The scare cost Pepsi some $25 million in lost sales and higher marketing costs, and another $10 million in increased coupon.
According to Arlene Levinson of the Associated Press, "Not one of the hundreds of reports filed in June of syringes in soft drink cans turned out to be authentic."
The FDA arrested 53 people in some twenty states for lying about consumer product tampering. None of the people arrested was able to show that Pepsi was at fault. However, not everyone who filed a claim was arrested for filing false claims.
Later that year, Mexican school teacher Maria Del Consuelo Lazaro sued PepsiCo after finding a rat the size of a fist in a can of Diet Pepsi during a visit to America. Fearful of causing another "flurry," federal investigators did not make a public announcement after confirming that, indeed, rat parts were found in the can. A Pepsi official denied responsibility.
By August, Katherine Wuerl pleaded guilty to a federal charge of making a false statement and lost her job at the newspaper. In October, Christopher J. Burnette was sentenced to a year in prison. Gail Levine had her conviction overturned on a technicality.
Three cases remained unresolved at the end of the year, including the case that started it all. Mrs. Triplett was reported as saying "They took our can and our syringe and our case, and so far nobody even paid us for it."
According to a government spokesman, they would probably remain that way. In a Schroedinger's Cat sort of explanation, Pepsi spokespeople maintained that there were "no instances where needles or syringes were found in unopened containers."
PepsiCo's headquarters town, Somers, New York, was the onetime home of Old Bet, The Elephant, "mother of America's carnival business." A statue commemorates her.