TERRORISM via the supermarket, accomplished by poisoning packaged food and drugs as they stand on the shelves, is a particularly detestable crime. It is also particularly difficult to prosecute--not least because many state statutes on adulteration, drafted with other practices in mind, are not well adapted to deal with the kind of tampering that is now apparent. Congress is considering legislation to put it unequivocally within federal jurisdiction. But the bill is moving slowly, and Congress will soon adjourn.
The chief purpose of this bill is to bring federal investigators into these cases immediately. Identifying and prosecuting the people who commit these crimes usually requires extremely sophisticated laboratory work. The FBI and the Food and Drug Administration, through their own laboratories and those of other federal agencies, have that kind of resource at their command. Most state and local police do not.
The Senate Judiciary Committee has reported a bill preferable to the version in the House. The senators have included a section extending federal penalties to another ugly game--the anonymous claim to have poisoned a certain product. It's a devastating weapon for a vindictive person with a grudge to settle against a company, and in many jurisdictions there are only the most minor penalties against a person who makes that claim without having actually committed the act. It's a little like hijacking an airliner with a gun that turns out to be a toy. That's not a joke.
New kinds of crime require adjustments to the law to ensure that the language of statutes applies to them precisely. This bill against tampering applies familiar and well-justified principles to the context of stores with open shelves. There have now been enough poisoning cases, and threats of poisoning, to require action before Congress adjourns.