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Why people engage in copycat product tampering

Strawberry 2

Malicious contamination is perhaps the most financially damaging incident a company can face. Few crimes are so easy to commit, yet so seriously endanger public safety and threaten such commercial damage.

On the 12th September, the first reported case of suspected product tampering was identified in a Woolworths store north of Brisbane. The product – a punnet of strawberries, the contaminant – a sewing needle. Soon after, police and Queensland Health advised consumers to dispose of, or return strawberries purchased from Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria supermarkets.

Over the next five days, needles had begun to appear in strawberries in other states; Western Australia and Tasmania. Then bananas in Harvey Bay and apples in Sydney. By September 18th, more than 20 cases of fruit contamination had been reported in NSW alone.

What had begun as an isolated incident involving, it is suggested, a disgruntled employee at one farm, has quickly turned to hysteria with ‘copycat’ criminal behaviour being reported every day.

MOSCOW, RUSSIA - JUNE 25, 2017: A bottle of Tylenol pain reliever pills on white.

Incidents of consumer copycat deviant behaviour

One of the earliest recorded incidents of product tampering was in 1982 involving Johnson & Johnson manufactured Tylenol. After ruling out tampering at the manufacturing point, police hypothesised the products were first laced with Cyanide then placed on supermarket and drug store shelves. While the actual perpetrators were never caught, one person attempted to extort $1 million from Johnson & Johnson. The event triggered more than 270 copycat tampering incidents in the months following.

In February 1997, Australian supermarkets were forced to dump $10m worth of Arnott’s biscuits because extortionists threatened to poison biscuits in New South Wales and Queensland unless demands to release a prisoner, held in a Queensland jail, were met. Then, three years later in February 2000, Denis Fountain was charged by police in relation to the contamination Herron brand paracetamol and attempted extortion. Later that year, Australia’s SmithKline Beecham International (SBI) recalled from sale its best-selling Panadol paracetamol capsules because it too received a contamination threat. Then, in 2006, two Sizzler ‘salad bars’ were laced with rat poising.

Often the motives of these behaviours are related to mental health or extortion attempts. However, what consumers and authorities are facing currently does not seem to be related to these drivers, which means the culprits are possibly motivated to engage in this copycat criminal activity for other reasons.


Understanding copycat crime starts with the concept of imitation. Pioneering 19th century French criminologist Gabriel Tarde was the first to argue crime was learned in the same way as law-abiding behavior.

Tarde supported this argument with three theoretical laws; law of insertion – that proffers new acts and behaviours are superimposed on old ones and subsequently reinforce continued acts. Simply, as more cases of tampering are reported, the behaviour is normalised, similar to how domestic violence is normalised via increased reporting across social media, i.e. ‘it happens all the time’.

The law of imitation of superiors by inferiors – establishes people hope their imitative behaviour will get the rewards associated with being associated with a particular group. Sport psychologists examine the behaviours of sporting fans and how they behave within their in-group, as opposed to their out-group (the other team’s supporter). In relation to deviant behaviour, recent research     demonstrated an indirect effect of antisocial friend association on criminal thinking through in-group affect and in-group ties with criminal in-group members.

Finally, the law of close contact – argues that that in societies and cities, where contact is close, imitation is most frequent. The context where these crimes are being committed are suburban supermarkets – regularly visited, crowded and busy places. Accordingly, they are very visible and one small act (placing a needle in a piece of fruit) can have the biggest impact. Tarde adopted the term ‘fashion’, explaining that copycat behaviour becomes fashionable for a while, as the reporting of the behaviour is more frequent. Hence, the more mentions of fruit tampering across social media and mainstream media, the higher propensity to imitate occurs.

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Is the media to blame?

It has been posited that the regular reporting of such incidents across social and mainstream media may normalise and potentially motivate others to engage in copycat deviant behaviour. Social Media users in Australia are some of the most prolific in the world, with a total of around 60% of the country’s population an active user on Facebook, and 50% of the country logging in at least once a day. Is what we are seeing today media-generated copycat behaviour?

For a crime to be defined as a ‘media generated copycat crime’ the act must be inspired by an earlier, media-publicised crime. The perpetrator of a copycat crime must be exposed to the media portrait of the original crime and must incorporate major elements of that crime into their crime, i.e. the placement of needles into strawberries in supermarkets.

While it is incumbent on journalists and the media to report criminal activities, particularly those type of activities that involve public safety, product tampering or food contamination, it is sometimes the case that such reporting motivates further criminal activity, or copycat crimes. Social scientist, David Phillips’ seminal work found that highly publicised stories of deviant and dangerous behaviour influenced copycat incidents.

More recent research found that when news media covered criminal violence it influenced the probability that other criminals will employ similar elements in their crimes, but it does not change overall rates of criminal activity. In other words, media coverage doesn’t ‘trigger’ criminality, but those intending to commit offences will replicate elements of the original crime in theirs – such as placing sewing needles in fruit.

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