Turning a tampering scare into a seminar on anti-social behavior, FDA Commissioner David Kessler announced that reports of soft-drink tampering appear to be only that: reports.
"On the basis of the information we have so far, the notion that there has been a nationwide tampering of Diet Pepsi is unfounded," Kessler told a Thursday afternoon news conference.
"Reports of possible tampering breed additional reports," he said. "It is a vicious cycle. That is what we believe has happened here."
In stern tones, the normally professorial Kessler emphasized that filing a false report of tampering is a federal felony offense punishable by up to five years in prison. He then announced three new arrests in addition to one earlier this week in Williamsport, Pa.
Kelly Fitzwater, 29, was arrested in Beach City, Ohio. Local police said 62-year-old Maria Luz Martinez of Covina, Calif., admitted she had fabricated her story about finding a syringe in a Pepsi.
Debbie Lynn Branham was arrested in Albion, Mich., according to Kessler, who predicted more arrests would follow.
"Let me stress one point, and I am serious about this: We will prosecute false reports of tampering," he said.
In the week since an elderly Washington state man reported finding a syringe in a can of Diet Pepsi he thought might contain a prize, hundreds of FDA and FBI investigators have chased down dozens of reports of foreign objects in soda cans.
So far, not a single instance of tampering has been confirmed, Kessler said, and the likelihood diminishes with each report.
"There is a correlation between media reports of complaints . . . and the frequency of those complaints," Kessler said. "The first complaint was received one week ago today in the Seattle area. The second complaint followed the next day, only 10 miles away, after local media reports.
"The complaints of the past week follow the classic pattern."
The commissioner said experts believe the motivations for false reports vary. "To some people it's seeing themselves on TV, perhaps. For some, they see something in it for themselves."
The news conference made it clear that the FDA _ while vowing to run down every report _ had shifted its emphasis from cautioning the public about a possible danger to putting down what it now regards as a contagious hoax.
Kessler declined to tell reporters the number of reports.
"If I give you a number, there will always be somebody who wants to make it that number plus one," he said.
By tallying local news reports, the Associated Press counted more than 50 allegations in 23 states.
"We learn something with each incident," said Dick Swanson, head of regulatory affairs at the FDA.
The food industry does, too. The Grocery Manufacturers of America, a trade association, publishes a manual on how to respond to apparent product tampering. Major companies maintain crisis teams, a spokesman said, and drill them on mock incidents.
"The food industry is experienced in dealing with this," said the spokesman, Jeffrey Nedelman.
This time the reflexes of giant PepsiCo were tested. Though experts found them a bit slow at first, this week a senior executive was on every network, emphasizing the company's concern and the difficulty a tamperer would have.
Pepsi rushed on a television commercial that focused on the assembly line. It showed cans turned upside down, sprayed with water, blasted with air, then filled and sealed in a matter of seconds.
So far, the company appears to be holding its own. After only mild declines over the past two weeks, Pepsi stock gained 1.5 points Thursday after Kessler's reassurance. There were only spotty reports of merchants taking Pepsi products off the shelves.
"A&P is doing it here, which is stupid," said Fredrick Koenig from New Orleans.
Koenig teaches social psychology at Tulane University and wrote a book on product scares, Rumor and the Marketplace. He said the Pepsi scare never looked historic.
"It's not life-threatening," Koenig said. "And it's not pleasant, but it's not as revolting as other contamination-type rumors."
Gary Small, a psychiatry professor at UCLA who studies mass hysteria, said his reaction when he first heard of a tampering report was that he ought to pour his Diet Coke into a glass before drinking it.
The apparent integrity of a sealed aluminium container may have made the difference for Pepsi.
Seven people died in the 1982 Tylenol tampering scare, in which cyanide was poured into capsules from unsealed packages. Since then, tamper-resistant packaging has become such a priority that it's virtually impossible to open a product without encountering a plastic wrapper, pressure bubble or other physical reassurance.
Consumers appreciate it. In a 1992 survey by the Grocery Manufacturers, 70 percent of shoppers expressed confidence in the safety of food packaging.
Still, among the 30 percent with doubts, the most common worry was that a container could be opened by someone else first.
Kessler, noting that no packaging system is perfect, urged consumers to use common sense. But he was not the only expert who had shifted his focus away from ordinary consumers on Thursday.
"One of the things that the psychiatrists and criminologists warn us is not to challenge the people to defeat the packaging," Nedelman said. "Really, the less written about it the better."
It's advice that Jonas Rappaport, a Baltimore psychiatrist who has advised the grocery industry on tamperings, is heeding.
"I have no comment, that's my comment," Rappaport said in a brief telephone interview. "The media circus has to stop. You're the 55th call I've had today, and I think the only way to stop is to stop."