Teens all over the country are tampering with food and drink products, then putting them back on the shelf. Here's what you need to know.

By Maressa Brown
photo illustration of opened yogurt on top of grocery store aisles
Adobe Stock (yogurt); Getty Images (store)

This past week in Indiana, a mother named Brittney Edwards took to Facebook to share a video of two girls taking soda bottles from a store cooler, opening them, spitting in them, replacing the caps, and then putting the bottles back on the cooler rack. She told local news outlet WTHR that her daughter goes to school with one of the girls in the video.

This isn't the first recent incident of teens tampering with food as a prank. Earlier this month, West Texas news station KOSA reported that a 15-year-old in Odessa, Texas was caught on drinking from a bottle of Arizona iced tea, then putting it back on the shelf.  Through a sworn affidavit, local police attest that "...the teen told the asset protection manager before the police officer arrived that he spit in it. The police officer says the teen repeatedly told him that he took a drink of the tea, then put it back, because it was 'gross.'" The boy is currently being held in a county juvenile facility.

Another video showed a Walmart shopper picking up a bottle of Listerine mouthwash, gargle, and then spit the mouthwash back into the bottle. In that case, the shopper later took to Twitter to show a receipt that proved they purchased the bottle.

The incident that reportedly triggered a stream of copycats doing the "ice cream challenge": a teen licked ice cream and then put it back in the freezer at a Texas Walmart. Police did not identify her, given her age, noting that she wouldn't be charged as an adult and was referred to the Texas Juvenile Justice Department. Her case remains "under investigation."

Previous reports asserted that the "Blue Bell Ice Cream Licker," as she's been called, might face up to 20 years and up to $10K in fines for a food tampering felony, according to Texas Penal Code. While that may very well not occur in this particular case, given that the girl is a juvenile, tampering with a consumer product is a felony, a fact parents of teens would do well to remind teens who might think this viral trend is funny and/or would lead to few, if any, penalties.

According to the United States Department of Justice, Subsection (a) of 18 U.S.C. § 1365 "prohibits tampering or attempted tampering with any consumer product that affects interstate or foreign commerce, or with the labeling of, or the container for, such a product. The tampering must be done with reckless disregard for the risk that another person will be placed in danger of death or bodily injury. Furthermore, the tampering must be done under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the risk of death or bodily injury."

Food tampering laws and related consequences do vary from state to state. For instance, California law (Penal Code Section 347) states that anyone who knowingly adds poison or a harmful substance to any food, drink, medicine, or pharmaceutical product where another person could be harmed, is guilty of a felony punishable by a prison sentence of two to five years. If the substance could cause death or great bodily injury to a person, an additional three years is added to the sentence.

Meanwhile, in New York, altering or contaminating food with “intent to cause physical injury” or “instill in another a fear [of] physical injury” is a Class A misdemeanor, and the maximum penalty is one year in jail.

And earlier this month, in Louisiana, a 36-year-old man, who did ultimately buy the tub of ice cream he tainted, was arrested on counts of unlawful posting of criminal activity for notoriety and publicity, as well as criminal mischief.

That said, the consequences a teen could potentially face will depend on where you reside and their age, but recent examples prove anyone who tampers with food will have to contend with the law.

Consumers who are concerned can keep an eye out for food tampering while shopping by bearing in mind the following 2018 guidelines recommended by the FDA:

  • Carefully examine all food product packaging. Be aware of the normal appearance of food containers. That way you'll be more likely to notice if an outer seal or wrapper is missing. Compare a suspect container with others on the shelf.
  • Check any anti-tampering devices on packaging. Make sure the plastic seal around the outside of a container is intact or that the safety button on the lid of a jar is down.
  • Don't purchase products if the packaging is open, torn, or damaged. This includes products on the shelf or in the refrigerator or freezer sections of the grocery store.
  • Don't buy products that are damaged or that look unusual. For example, never purchase canned goods that are leaking or that bulge at the ends. Likewise for products that appear to have been thawed and then refrozen.
  • Check the "sell-by" dates printed on some products, and only buy items within that time frame.