By Lisa Lupo

Just as QA was preparing to go to press with this issue and its cover story on Food Defense, the news broke: “Suspect Sought in Possible Food Tampering at Local Grocery Store.” It was soon followed by “Child Sickened, Restaurants on Alert After Food Tampering” and “Two More Report Illness from South Lake Tahoe Food Tampering.” Then, finally, “Suspect Arrested in South Lake Tahoe Food Contamination Crimes.”

South Lake Tahoe is a small California city of just over 21,000 located on the southern edge of Lake Tahoe. Self-described as “America’s All Year Playground,” the city was anything but fun the last few weeks of November when it was discovered that two of the city’s self-serve food bars had been intentionally contaminated. As reports of the incidents hit the news, many residents became afraid to eat food, particularly that of self-serve food bars of any type.

According to statements from the South Lake Tahoe Police Department (SLTPD), the first alert came on Tuesday, November 15, when officers responded to a report of possible food tampering at a Chinese self-serve food court inside a Raley’s Supermarket. Video surveillance showed that a man had walked into the grocery store, approached the food, and intentionally dispensed an unknown type of contaminating substance on the food. The suspect then walked out of the store and left the area on foot. Review of store video also indicated that the same suspect had committed this act on at least three prior occasions.

Photos: South Lake Tahoe police department

For a week, SLTPD detectives investigated reports of several instances of intentional contamination of food by a suspect(s), including those at the Raley’s and similar events at a Baja Fresh in the same shopping center. Based on the suspect’s method of operation and description of the appearance and chemical odor associated with the substance used to contaminate the food sources, detectives believed the crimes were connected.

Through collaboration with Raley’s security personnel, detectives identified the suspect as 43-year-old Harry Dally. On November 22, detectives served a search warrant at Dally’s residence, the service of which “revealed items of interest related to this investigation.” Dally was arrested and booked into the El Dorado County Jail, charged with a single felony count of intentionally dispensing a contaminating substance capable of causing death or injury on food items for human consumption. Since then, Dally has been charged with additional felony counts, with possible further charges to come.

According to a report in the Tahoe Daily Tribune, an SLTPD spokesman said Dally was able to be identified because he had been caught shoplifting from Raley’s last summer.

At the time of this writing, no information on the contaminant nor the motivation had been released. But what the incident does tell us is that intentional food contamination is a reality in today’s world; that an act is just as likely to be committed by a disgruntled person who is someone’s next-door neighbor as it is by a terrorist person or group; and that it can happen at your neighborhood supermarket, restaurant ... or food processing facility.