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CSI: YOUR RESTAURANT

What exactly does a company in the food forensics business do? Here's the sales pitch from one of them, RQA, Inc.:

"Consumer complaints? Contaminated Products? Foreign Bodies? RQA's Food Forensics now offers their experience in the investigation of complaints and the identification of foreign bodies to the U.S. food industry."

Another one, Microbac, puts it this way.

"To ensure the safety of your food product and to avert the negative publicity that comes from such situations, Microbac can provide efficient, immediate forensic analysis of the object, the environment, and the process of the food's preparation in order to assess the validity of the claim."

Companies like these two—there are others—are your go-to option when some brain-dead customer attempts to scam your restaurant. What's scary is that there are apparently enough claims being made-some regrettably real, of course, but many others totally fabricated-that food testing outfits like RQA and Microbac see restaurants as a growth market for their services.

Should you ever hire one of these companies, keep in mind that you'll be getting an independent investigator, not an advocate. The value is that their precise analytical testing skills can quickly sort out culpability if your restaurant is named as the culprit in a food illness outbreak situation, a contamination or spoilage incident, or—a mini—trend of late-the foreign-matter-in-the-food accusation.

Of course, the courts have not looked kindly on those who have made false foreign matter accusations lately.

Scheduled for sentencing on July 5 are the mother-son team of Carla and Ricky Patterson. The pair claimed to have found a dead mouse in a bowl of vegetable soup served to them at a Cracker Barrel restaurant in Newport News, VA, in 2004. Cracker Barrel immediately launched a forensics-based investigation that included an audit of its quality controls and health department inspections, plus thorough laboratory tests. Those tests indicated that the mouse had been placed in the soup after it had been served to the Pattersons.

"Independent testing done on the mouse showed it sustained a fractured skull, an injury consistent with being caught in a mousetrap," says Cracker Barrel spokesman Jim Taylor. "The investigation showed no evidence that linked the contamination to our store, our employees or our vendors."

But it did provide a clear link to the Pattersons. At the time of the incident, they demanded $500,000 from Cracker Barrel in exchange for photographs of the mouse, which Ricky Patterson had taken with his cell phone. The fee would also buy a public confession that Ricky Patterson planted the mouse in the soup as a practical joke.

No dice, said Cracker Barrel, who contacted prosecuting attorneys instead. The result: A grand jury indictment for the Pattersons on felony charges of conspiracy to commit extortion.

In May, the Pattersons were convicted. The jury recommended sentences of one year in jail and a $2,500 fine for each Patterson. Their sentencing hearing takes place this Wednesday.

You'd think no one would be stupid enough to pull the dead mouse stunt again. But that didn't stop Ryan Goff of Traverse City, MI from giving it a go. Earlier this year, he purchased a frozen mouse from a pet store and put it in a burrito he bought at a Taco Bell unit in Traverse City, MI. He claimed Taco Bell had served the mouse-laden burrito to him.

Goff reported the "incident" to the local health department and to a Taco Bell regional manager, threatening to take it to the media unless compensated for his trouble.

It didn't work out quite the way he planned. Taco Bell did some forensic work whose results pointed to Goff as the culprit. He was sentenced in early June to 16 to 30 months in prison after pleading guilty to one felony count of attempted extortion.

And, of course, as we wrote in our newsletter earlier this year, Anna Ayala, perpetrator of the Wendy's finger-in-the-chili scam in California, got a nine-year prison sentence for her trouble. Her husband, who procured the finger, got 12 years.

How likely is it that something like this will happen at your place? These three cases were isolated incidents, but maybe not as isolated as the restaurant industry would hope.

"It is more frequent that we like to admit," Wendy's Denny Lynch told the Chicago Tribune. He didn't give out hard numbers, but indicated that after any claim, even a fraudulent one, his chain might experience as many as 20 to 30 copycat incidents over the following weeks. That's when the food forensic specialists can really bail you out.

So what should you do if an incident like this happens at your place? Be ready with a rapid response that includes getting the food forensics people on your case in a hurry. If the claim's legit, say the experts, settle it fast. If it's not, call the cops. The justice system will take it from there.

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