Pressing the Flesh

DAMAGE CONTROL: Accidents will happen in commercial kitchens, but a string of recent incidents suggests you should take extra care when they do.

Being able to quickly distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate food safety claims is a skill restaurant personnel can acquire.

We've been advocating in RH for years that operators should have both a HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point) system and a crisis communications plan in place in case a food safety problem were to crop up. Thanks to Anna Ayala, the entire industry, and particularly fast food chain Wendy's, now knows that these systems also come in mighty handy if a scam artist targets your restaurant for a grotesque hoax and tries to shake you down for money.

But at least the Ayala incident was a hoax. Much more disturbing are recent revelations about gruesome incidents that actually took place in the QSR segment (one at an Arby's unit, a second at a Kohl's Frozen Custard location) and, the most recent to surface, at a Louisiana unit of full-service chain Applebee's.

The burning question for operators used to be what would you have done if someone like finger-in-the-chili suspect Ayala had tried to defraud you instead of Wendy's? Now the issue is how do you handle the situation if a customer finds a piece of finger or flesh in his or her meal and isn't making it up?

Let's look at the Ayala case first.

The value of HACCP's put-it-in-writing recordkeeping scheme first became clear just days after the Wendy's story broke. The company was able to track that questionable batch of chili back up its supply chain and prove that no one involved with the production, transportation or final assembly of the chili served at its San Jose unit was missing a finger.

With Wendy's off the hook, investigators turned their attention to Ms. Ayala, the woman who found the 1 1/2-inch long severed digit in her chili. Legal tip #1: It's always better to have law enforcement agencies working to clear your restaurant's name instead of having to do it yourself.

Although it was demonstrably not at fault, the damage to Wendy's business was nonetheless immediate and severe. Sales in the chain's Northern California market temporarily fell by half; overall U.S. sales were off $1 million a day. It could have been worse.

Investigators quickly discovered the Wendy's incident was not the first time Ms. Ayala had made claims under questionable circumstances. She had also done so against a former employer; against another fastfood operation (which she claimed paid her $30,000, although the chain said it did not); and against General Motors. Investigators found a total of 13 cases in which Ayala had filed legal claims in either her name or those of her children. There was also a pending matter in which Ms. Ayala sold a house trailer she did not own to a buyer who paid cash.

Ayala quickly decided she no longer wanted to sue Wendy's (for "emotional reasons"). But that didn't stop the San Jose police from arresting Ayala and charging her with both grand theft and attempted grand theft.

One question remained: Where did the finger come from? Shortly after her arrest, we were introduced to Ayala's husband, James Plascencia. Investigators reported that an asphalt paving company worker named Brian Rossiter lost the tip of his finger in an industrial accident last December. Rossiter gave the severed piece of finger to his fellow worker, Plascencia, to settle a $50 debt. Plascencia has since been jailed, but on an unrelated charge of failing to pay child support.

Wendy's didn't publicly gloat ("we feel vindicated," was all company president Tom Mueller said). But it should. This is exactly how crisis management is supposed to work in the restaurant business. Wendy's rapid response and masterful handling of this situation won't make scammers like the fun couple of Ayala and Plascencia go away. But it will likely cut down on the number and types of scams perpetrated on the foodservice industry.

You may be thinking: Good for them, but how often is a flesh-in-the-food situation going to come up? More often than you think. In Ohio, David Scheiding filed suit on April 1, 2005, seeking $50,000-plus. He claimed he received a chicken sandwich last June from a local Arby's restaurant that contained a 3/4-inchlong piece of human flesh.

Apparently, this one was no hoax. The Associated Press reported that when Miami County, OH, health officials queried the restaurant's manager, he happened to be wearing a blood-soaked bandage on his thumb. The health district write-up of the incident reported that the manager said he had sliced skin from his thumb while shredding lettuce but did not throw away the bin of lettuce he was working on at the time.

Shredded lettuce was part of his sandwich, Scheiding said. "Why wasn't the food searched, and why wasn't it thrown away?" Scheiding's lawyer asked the AP.

Good questions. A spokesperson for GZK Inc., the Arby's franchisee, said the entire incident was unintentional. That seems likely, but Scheiding had already rejected a settlement offer from GZK before filing his suit.

We're in no position to prejudge this case, but it sounds like GZK better get ready to cut a check to Scheiding. And we can't say for sure that a strict HACCP program would have prevented this mishap from taking place. This incident makes clear that a HACCP system is no better than the people administering it are.

And they're sure having trouble administering it at the Kohl's Frozen Custard unit in Wilmington, NC. A customer said he bought a pint of frozen chocolate custard there in early May of this year that contained a piece of severed finger.

When officials from the state departments of agriculture and labor went to Kohl's to investigate the complaint, lo and behold: An employee had indeed lost a finger in the store's custard-dispensing machine— and a drive-thru employee had inadvertently served that batch of custard before learning of the event.

As you might imagine, the victim is looking for a lawyer now.

Could you, as Applebee's did, quickly reconstruct a service sequence
that took place a year ago to determine what had really happened?

An Applebee's customer has already found one. In late June, May Deal Chambers Johnson of Jefferson Parish, LA, sued Applebee's International Inc., alleging she had found a human fingertip in her takeout salad.

The incident took place on June 25, 2004. Here's what is said to have happened.

"Upon plaintiff's consumption of part of the food, she realized that there was a foreign object in her salad and became very ill, experiencing vomiting, stomach aches, headaches and chest pains. In the salad was the tip of a human finger and the experience of finding this revolting object in her food has not only caused her physical harm but also serious psychological harm," the suit claimed.

What, exactly, could Applebee's do in response to an incident alleged to have taken place a full year ago?

The company sent members of its senior management team to Louisiana to launch an investigation. They couldn't have liked what they found.

"While some facts are still unclear, we now believe a former employee at this restaurant accidentally cut the very tip of his thumb last year," is how Applebee's put it in a press release. "The cut was roughly the size of a sunflower seed, according to the former employee. We believe this was the incident that may have led to the claim by Ms. Johnson."

But at least they found out what happened. Would you be able to reconstruct a service sequence from your operation that took place last year?

After ascertaining that the incident probably took place as claimed, Applebee's issued a public apology. "We deeply regret this isolated incident from last year," the company said. "Food safety remains our top priority." It was textbook handling of a crisis by the Applebee's team.

Still, Johnson's lawyer, Michael Darnell, wasn't buying it.

"These things will happen in a kitchen environment, but the good establishments make sure the proper precautions are taken," he said. He also wondered why it took Applebee's an entire year to discover the incident, further questioning why health departments officials weren't notified when the restaurant's unit-level management found out about it.

The real question for operators here is one of focus. Occasional incidents like these three, while distasteful, are in the end an expensive nuisance for the restaurant owner. It's vastly more important to be ever-vigilant against more serious safety food safety problems.

Which brings us to legal tip #2: Go to [2] and read what top food safety attorney Bill Marler has to say on this topic. The Seattle-based expert's on-the-money discussion of the Wendy's incident starts this way: "The food industry tends to over-emphasize, and thus over-react, to such claims. Such a strategy can lead to the denial of legitimate complaints. Denying legitimate claims increases the likelihood of overlooking real problems with food safety. And overlooking real problems increases the risk of health code violations, of poisoning consumers, costly litigation and public relations headaches.

"So how does one distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate or unsupported claims of food poisoning? On a slow day, my firm gets about 25 e-mails and phone calls from prospective clients. We reject about 95% of them — mostly on the basis of a few basic criteria...."

Marler then provides a list that every foodservice owner or operator should keep at hand for that dreaded moment when a customer confronts you with a food-related complaint. We hope you never get that call. But if you do, this list (you can access one version directly at [3]) can tell you what to worry about and what to let go.

Marler's firm, Marler Clark, is the top food safety litigation outfit in the country. He's giving full-service operators good counsel and advice here for free. Take it.