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The Pepsi challenge

There are lessons everyone can take away from the latest product-tampering scare involving Pepsi, beyond the simple advice to use a glass and look before you drink. Perhaps the media could stand to learn the most.

Admittedly, print and broadcast news organizations face a tough call when presented with stories about potentially dangerous objects being found inside food or other consumer products. The issue of public safety _ notifying people so that they might avoid harm _ has to be weighed against another harmful possibility, that publicity of such incidents will result in copycat hoaxes. The fatal Tylenol tampering in 1982 is a good example of this dilemma.

In the Pepsi case, overplayed coverage undeniably spurred a run of faked reports. By the Associated Press' count, more than 50 claims of objects being found inside soft drink cans have been made in 23 states in the week since the first report of a syringe in a can of Diet Pepsi came from a man in Washington state. At least a dozen have been confirmed as hoaxes, and the number of arrests for false claims, including that of a St. Petersburg man who confessed to making up a story about finding wood screws in a can of Coke, are climbing steadily.

Food and Drug Administration Commissioner David Kessler was appropriately reassuring in his news conference, firmly stating that federal investigators have found no proof that these foreign objects were deliberately sealed inside Pepsi cans. He was also right in reproving the "vicious cycle" that reports of the Pepsi hoaxes have bred. He even declined to say how many claims have been reported, saying if he gave out a number, "there will always be somebody who wants to make it that number plus one."

PepsiCo deserves praise for placing top executives instead of public relations personnel in front of television cameras to ease consumer fears. And with a few exceptions, most grocery stores and other retail outlets helped keep hysteria at minimum by not yanking Pepsi products off their shelves.

No matter how well manufacturers, federal officials and the media prepare themselves to respond to product tampering, though, knowing the best way to react is at best a challenge. In the complicated phenomenon involving bewildering motives for getting attention, contagious hoaxes and, above all, consumer safety, experience can be the best teacher. But more experience with product tampering is exactly what is to be avoided.

The Pepsi scare at least has shown that common sense and a sense of calm are valuable tools in handling such a crisis.

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