The Chicago Tribune recently published the following article on gross food claims (and quoted me):
When a woman claimed to have found a human finger in a bowl of Wendy’s chili, Denny Lynch was the point man for the giant fast-food chain.
“This was grotesque, gruesome,” Lynch said. An expert at damage control for decades, Lynch went to work. With the help of the local restaurant’s staff and a carefully chronicled record of deliveries from suppliers along the food chain, he was able to prove that the woman was a liar.
Something similar happened when Jim Taylor went after a woman’s claim that she found a mouse drowned in her soup at a Cracker Barrel Old Country Store restaurant.
Borrowing a page from what could be a “CSI: Rodents” script, Taylor found scientists who could prove the mouse was dead before it landed in the soup. Clues: No soup in the lungs and a telltale broken skull.
Major fast-food chains have established rapid-response teams that are dispatched at the first hint of such claims. And the chains say they are becoming much more aggressive.
Lynch is Wendy’s primary investigator. He said the chain is eager to settle legitimate claims quickly and quietly and to aggressively prosecute fraud.
His most-remembered Wendy’s case came in 2005, when a California woman claimed to have found a fingertip in a bowl of chili. Anna Ayala drew a nine-year sentence after it was proved she lied.
Both Lynch and Taylor were reluctant to discuss specific settlements in other cases, fearing that releasing such details would encourage copycat cases.
In a legitimate case two years ago, David Scheiding found a piece of a human thumb in his chicken sandwich at an Arby’s restaurant in Tipp City, Ohio.
“I was chewing on it and there was something I could not chew,” he said. “I spit it out and I saw finger prints on it.”
The restaurant manager apparently sliced off a piece of his thumb while shredding lettuce.
Scheiding is suing Arby’s for a settlement totaling $50,000. He said the chain offered him a settlement at the time of the incident, but that he and his lawyers decided it was not enough.
Arby’s would not discuss the incident in detail.
“This unfortunate and rare incident occurred at a franchised location in June of 2004,” said Kathy Siefert, director of public relations for Arby’s. “Arby’s is committed to providing our guests with quality food in a comfortable and safe environment.”
Brandon Seinna of Niles, Ill., ordered a meal in a T.G.I. Friday’s in Bloomington, Ind., earlier this year. When the food arrived, he spied what looked like human flesh on the plate.
It was, and T.G.I. Friday’s had to scurry to do damage control. “A manager cut his finger while working in the kitchen,” the company said in a statement. “In the rush of attending to his medical needs, the team members were unaware that a small piece of skin from the individual’s finger top had fallen onto a plate, and that plate was subsequently served to a guest.”
The statement went on to say that safety procedures were reviewed and that another such incident would not occur.
It is difficult to estimate how many claims like these – real and fraudulent – occur every year. Real incidents usually involve no crime and thus no police records, and restaurant chains are very reluctant to talk about them.
“It is more frequent than we like to admit,” said Lynch, who declined to give exact numbers. He did say that after a claim – real or fraudulent – there are usually 20 to 30 copycat incidents within two to three weeks.
Donna Garren, vice president for health and regulatory affairs at the National Restaurant Association, said claims of body pieces in food – both real and fraudulent – are not common. Asked if they occurred several times a month, she said: “Oh no, nothing like that. These are very rare.”
William Marler, an attorney who has represented clients who became ill after eating in fast-food restaurants, said companies go to elaborate lengths to prevent contamination of their food supply chains, but that these plans are not flawless.
After a legitimate claim, he said, the companies should acknowledge the problem and then get busy defending their business reputations.
“You have to get past the fact that this is not a bogus claim and you have to deal with it,” Marler said. If the claim is bogus, he added, “I tell them to fight those cases to the death.”
Lynch said Wendy’s remains in constant contact with its suppliers and keeps detailed records that track food from the manufacturer to the restaurant. That record keeping enabled him to prove that the finger in the chili was planted.
“When something happens, you have to move with urgency,” he said.
Taylor said similar procedures helped him with the mouse claim.
“Cracker Barrel immediately stopped serving this particular soup in all of its locations,” he said. “This precautionary measure ensured no other guests would be subjected to a similar incident while our investigation was under way.”
Taylor said the restaurant in Newport News, Va., contacted corporate headquarters for help with investigating the incident, which occurred in 2004.
“The investigation showed no evidence that linked the contamination to our store, our employees or our vendor,” Taylor said.
But the case did not end there. “Independent testing done on the mouse showed it sustained a fractured skull, an injury consistent with being caught in a mousetrap,” he added.
Confronted with the evidence, the woman making the claim said her son might have put the mouse in the soup as a practical joke and made an offer to Cracker Barrel: Pay her $500,000 and she would make a public confession.
It was an offer Cracker Barrel could, and did, refuse. A grand jury indicted the woman and her son, who were convicted of felony conspiracy to commit extortion in April. Sentencing is scheduled for this week.