F.D.A. Finds Traces of Poison in 2 Jars of Baby
Food in California
By ANDREW POLLACK
Published: July 29, 2004
LOS ANGELES, July 28 - Tiny amounts of the poison ricin have been
detected in two jars of baby food that had been tampered with before
being sold by a Southern California supermarket, the authorities said
But the authorities said the contaminant was ground-up castor beans,
from which ricin is derived, not the purified form of the toxin, which
is far deadlier. Two babies who ate some of the food were not harmed.
"There is a big difference between purified toxin and crude castor
beans," said Dr. David Acheson, chief medical officer at the Food and
Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "It
is unlikely there would be serious injury from the level of castor beans
we found it the product."
The ground-up beans were found in jars of Gerber Banana Yogurt Dessert
bought from a Ralphs supermarket in Irvine, which is south of Los
Angeles in Orange County, according to the Federal Bureau of
Investigation and the Irvine Police Department.
Tony Rackauckas, the district attorney of Orange County, called it a
The jars contained similar notes inside warning that the jars were
contaminated. They were discovered by parents after they had already fed
some of the food to their babies. The notes also referred to a member of
the Irvine police force. The authorities would not identify the police
officer nor indicate what was said about him or her in the note.
The authorities released a photo of a 47-year-old man, Charles D. Cage,
whom they said they want to question.
Mr. Rackauckas said at a news conference in Irvine that was partially
televised here that he would not call Mr. Cage a suspect or even a
"person of interest." Still, Mr. Rackauckas said, "he's someone who was
in the area at a relevant time" and the authorities believe he may have
information about the matter.
The first incident was discovered on May 31. A couple brought their
9-month-old baby to the hospital after finding a note in a jar of baby
food. The baby had eaten some of the food, authorities said.
The police reported the second case after being called to a house on
June 16. A father had found a note while rinsing out a jar of the same
type of baby food after feeding some to his 1-year-old son. There was no
food left in the jar for testing, but the Irvine police found another
jar on the family's shelf that also had a note inside, Lt. Jeff Love, a
police spokesman, said.
The news conference was held Wednesday because the results of the tests
on the food, done by the F.D.A.'s forensics laboratory, showed that
ricin and some other components of castor beans had been found. The
authorities said they wanted to warn people to make sure that food
packages they buy have not been tampered with.
Lieutenant Love said that in these cases, the parents thought the food
had not been tampered with. Baby food is supposed to make a popping
noise when opened, and the families thought they had heard that noise,
he said. But he said the vacuum that creates the popping noise could be
restored after a jar was tampered with.
"It is possible to open a jar, put something in it and then, using heat
and so forth, put it back in an appearing sealed condition," the
lieutenant said, adding that consumers should buy food that had a seal
around it for protection.
Kurt T. Schmidt, president of Gerber Products Company, said he did not
know the details of what happened in Irvine or how easy it is to restore
the seal. Mr. Schmidt said vacuum-sealed jars with pop tops were the
"industry standard'' for baby foods.
But he said Gerber had already added an additional protection, a plastic
seal, to some of its products and would now speed up plans to add it to
all its products.
The authorities said Gerber had been cooperating with the inquiry.
Gerber, which is based in Parsippany, N.J., and is a unit of the Swiss
giant Novartis, said in a statement, "We have been informed by the
authorities that Gerber was not a target and that the tampering occurred
Gerber said it would immediately remove all of the banana yogurt product
from Southern California store. It had already been removed from the one
supermarket in Irvine.