Clayton Riley, of Ironton, Ohio, said he was feeding his 9-month-old daughter Gerber mixed vegetables almost two weeks ago when he saw a sparkle in the food and heard a "crunching sound" in the infant's mouth.
His wife Patricia reached into the baby's mouth and pulled out a piece of glass "about as big as a dime," Riley said. Hospital X-rays showed foreign matter in the infant's stomach, and she passed glass two to three days later, Riley said.
Laboratory tests have not yet been performed to determine the source of the glass, but Riley blames Gerber Products Co. "I'm angry at Gerber," said Riley, who filed suit earlier last week against Gerber, seeking $800,000 in damages. "They ought to check into this more, pull all their baby food back and work this out so more babies don't get hurt."
Gerber said Friday it has not heard of the Rileys' suit and disagreed with Riley, consumer activists and some business experts who say a recall is warranted -- a disagreement that has raised questions of how a company should respond to reports of tampering or damage to its products.
Gerber, with the support of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, believes there is "absolutely no indication that there is a problem" with its products and has no plans to withdraw them, said L. James Lovejoy, a company spokesman.
But many consumer activists and other observers warn that Gerber is taking a gamble by betting its reputation -- and therefore its business -- on products that may be vulnerable to tampering or other damage after they leave the factory.
"Gerber's strategy is horrendous," said Mark Silbergeld, director of the Washington office of Consumer's Union. "Their responsibility to the public is to pull the product off the shelves and make an extensive effort to find the cause promptly."
"Gerber is taking a big chance," said Leonard M. Lodish, chairman of the marketing department at the Wharton School. "They could lose their best asset, the trust of the American mother, and once they've lost it, they might as well go out of business."
On the other hand, Wall Street analysts have supported Gerber's decision to stand behind its products.
The FDA said Friday that a product recall is unnecessary, even though it has received more than 137 allegations of glass found in Gerber products in 30 states during the last two weeks. The agency said it found bits of glass in more than 21 jars of Gerber baby food opened by consumers and found harmless specks of glass in five of more than 23,000 previously unopened jars.
"There is no pattern to the complaints," the FDA said in a statement. "No common lot numbers, no common type of product or common factory production line." The agency said it inspected each Gerber production plant twice and "found no manufacturing or other general problem with these foods."
But Maryland state officials disagreed and decided last Sunday to order all Gerber's strained peaches off the shelves after finding glass pieces in four jars that had been opened by consumers and after confirming that a Randallstown infant who ate several Gerber products was determined to have ingested glass.
The state has confirmed five more reports of glass in Gerber baby food jars that had been opened, said Lynn Buffey-Doyle, spokeswoman for the state health department.
No other states have followed Maryland's example, but instead have chosen to follow the FDA's lead.
The contrast leaves some consumers wondering whether Maryland is overreacting or whether Gerber is uderreacting to the complaints.
Gerber notes that Maryland officials found no glass fragments in 600 unopened jars examined. The company, which is based in Freemont, Mich., termed the Maryland ban "unwarranted and irresponsible," and filed a lawsuit seeking its removal and $150 million in damages. The suit is now on hold pending a ruling on the dispute by a state hearing examiner.
Gerber's experts "are baffled" by the reports and have not determined the cause, Lovejoy said. "There is no logical explanation for what is happening."
To identify a tampering or production problem, the company would have to find some common thread to the complaints -- to find glass in different samples of the same batch or from the same production plant or from a common warehouse, Lovejoy said.
Gerber attributes some of the glass reports to consumer nervousness following Johnson & Johnson's decision last week to stop selling Tylenol capsules after capsules in two triple-sealed bottles were found to be laced with cyanide.
Both Gerber and the FDA recall a similar increase in tampering reports, involving Gerber products and others, following the first Tylenol-related deaths in 1982. One FDA investigator in Dallas said last week that his staff has been "swamped" with a tenfold increase in reports of allegedly adulterated peanut butter, Tylenol, baby food and other items since a New York woman died Feb. 8, apparently poisoned by cyanide-spiked Tylenol.
But the FDA said it has seen no recent increase in reports of glass in baby food made by Gerber's competitors.
The FDA and Gerber have offered three additional explanations for the glass reports:
*Consumers may be mistaking food crystals for glass particles.
*Some isolated incidents of tampering may have occurred. Consumers should watch for this by checking the Gerber lid pop-up buttons and listening for a "whoosh" sound when the vacuum sealed jar is opened.
*"Some breakage is reasonable in the transport and storage of the company's production of more than 1.35 billion glass jars annually," the FDA said.
A glass jar broken in transit may leave glass particles on other jars, can work their way up under the lip of the lid and be sucked into the jar when the vacuum-sealed lid is opened, FDA and Geber said.
Each of these theories is based upon the FDA's conclusion that the baby food is safe when it leaves the factory.
"We have no reason to believe there is any problem with the glass" used to package the baby food, Lovejoy said. Gerber uses jars supplied by several of the country's largest glass companies and inspects each container by X-ray to detect defects, he said.
The Glass Packaging Institute said in a statement that the companies which supply glass jars to Gerber "have been cooperating fully with Gerber and the FDA in efforts to define the problem and reach a conclusion."
Gerber also has said it is not responsible for breakage that may occur when glass containers are mishandled in transit. "It's out of our hands" once the jars have left the factory, said Gerber spokeswoman Grace Durr. Recognizing the potential problems with breakage, the company does have a long-standing refund policy which offers to replace any case of Gerber baby food which contains even one jar broken in shipment, Lovejoy said.
Critics say Gerber should look to Johnson & Johnson as a model of corporate responsibility because the company reacted quickly and decisively to a problem that, perhaps like Gerber's, apparently occurred after its product had left the factory.
Johnson & Johnson, which had started using triple-sealed packages after the 1982 Tylenol episode, reacted to the most recent scare by pulling the product off store shelves nationwide, making refunds for opened and unopened bottles, offering a $100,000 award for information and discontinuing production of the popular capsule form of its best-selling product.
Consumer advocates praised Johnson & Johnson's sense of responsibility, while business school experts applauded the corporate strategy. But some Wall Street analysts said Johnson & Johnson overreacted.
Gerber says the comparison is unfair. "With Tylenol, there was proof of tampering and dead people," Lovejoy said. "In this case, no one has been injured and there is no evidence of tampering or bits of glass in closed jars."
Some critics disagree with that assessment.
Riley, the Ohio father, alleges his daughter was injured and said his jar had its vacuum seal in place.
Maryland officials said the Randallstown infant who ingested glass suffered abrasions when he passed the fragments.
A 4-month-old Dallas boy was treated for a cut on his mouth Monday night after eating from a jar of Gerber strained peas, according to a police report and the hospital. The FDA found that jar to be "loaded with glass" and found three "minute particles" in an unopened jar of a Gerber meat product purchased by the infant's mother, said Bill Graham, director of the Dallas FDA laboratory.
"Johnson & Johnson appeared to put consumer interests ahead of the company's, whereas Gerber seems to be putting the company first," said Wharton's Lodish.
A critic also said Gerber may be resisting a recall because baby food accounts for more than half of Gerber's sales and profits; by contrast, Johnson & Johnson's Tylenol capsules represent a smaller fraction of its more-widely-diversified operations. Baby food contributed about 54 percent of Gerber's total sales of $929.4 million and 68 percent of its profits of $56.4 million in 1985, according to analysts' estimates. By contrast, Johnson & Johnson said it expects to lose about $150 million by withdrawing Tylenol capsules, or about 9 percent of the company's total worldwide sales of $6 billion.
"That's totally absurd," Lovejoy said. "Our whole business is based upon our reputation . . . but we are not going to admit something that is not true."