Late in the morning on Thursday, 28 children, ages 3 and 4, along with two adults were taken to the hospital after accidentally consuming bleach during snack time at the Growing Tree learning center in downtown Jersey City. The children were rushed off in five ambulances after some complained of upset stomachs and light-headedness. Fortunately, by mid-afternoon, all 30 were reportedly stable and discharged.
The children were accidentally poisoned by the new, and now fired, kitchen worker at the day care center who mistakenly used a milk gallon jug which had been re-purposed as a container for a bleach cleaning solution to pour water for the children. Coincidentally, PLOS ONE released a report on the same day that evaluated the dangers of bottling cleaning products in packaging that resembles food, like fruit juice. According to the report, cleaners that are packaged like food, termed “Food Imitating Products,” (FIPs) have been the source of numerous, and occasionally fatal, accidental ingestions of poisonous cleaning agents. The report claims that the cause of these incidents is primarily neurological and related to how brands package and label their products.
The article claims that cleaning agent brands have begun to market their products with food imagery because such imagery works as a sort of “visual metaphor” for hedonic (pleasurable) purchasing. The article defines the metaphor as “[the] experience [of] one kind of thing in the terms of another.” With regards to FIPs this means that by marketing cleaning agents with food imagery, companies draw attention away from the unpleasant (poisonous and caustic) qualities of cleaning agents in favor of more appealing (though superficial) aspects such as juice-like color and scent. The unintended effect of this marketing plan, however, is that people will drink the stuff (even if the label tells them not too).
The researchers behind the article studied the hazards of FIPs by analyzing several thousand calls to the Marseille Poison Control Center in France over a 14-month period of time, hoping to discover what kind of behavior resulted in people ingesting particular products. Callers, according to the paper, repeatedly cited visual elements of the products, such as packaging and labeling, as reasons for their confused consumption. The researchers then performed a series of brain scans to find out why, on a neurological level, people were so confused by the packaging. Test subjects were shown several FIPs, like the shower gel “Cottage Happy Shower Tequila Sunrise,” along with a box of juice and a bottle of bleach. While the test subjects were always able to determine which objects were food and which were not, their brain scans indicated that both the fruit juice and the shower gel triggered regions of the brain that are associated with our ability to visually recognize food.
Taking into account the research done in the PLOS ONE article, their claim that “the use of food metaphor in marketing strategies … constitutes a serious health problem” does not seem far-fetched. However, what the incident at the Growing Tree learning center clearly demonstrates is that brands are not the only ones poisoning us with ill-considered labeling; we are doing this to ourselves. In USA Today’s report on the Growing Tree incident, Dr. Steven M. Marcus, the executive director of New Jersey Poison Information and Education System, says that “such accidents are fairly common” because workers at food service outlets often put bleach and water solutions in containers like a “brand-name water bottle or jug.” Clearly our relationship with household cleaners needs to be reevaluated, between the shampoos that look like apple-juice and the water-bottle filled with bleach there is a good chance we might just kill ourselves the next time we reach for a snack.