Wendy's Chili Finger (World of Forensic Science)
In March 2005, a woman claimed to have found part of a severed finger in a bowl of chili at a Wendy's restaurant in San Jose, California. The woman claimed to have discovered the finger (actually two sections of finger tissue) after eating a portion of the chili containing the severed tissue. The woman alleged to have put a portion of the finger tissue in her mouth and then spat it out. After vomiting, she notified restaurant employees, who then called the police. A medical examiner identified the tissue as part of a human finger.
The charges and claims generated far reaching and intense negative publicity for the third largest U.S. hamburger chain; sales dropped nationwide.
After a forensic investigation that included analysis of every step in the food production chain and "trace-back" analysis of elements discovered in the finger tissue, authorities suspected that the initial complaint was a fraud intended to intimidate the restaurant chain into a potentially lucrative financial settlement for the initial complainant.
Forensic trace element analysis showed that the finger had not been cooked with the ingredients in the chili, and therefore, must have been placed in the chili after it was cooked.
Ultimately, the woman who claimed to have found the finger was arrested, initially on one count of grand theft stemming from an unrelated real estate transaction and on one count of attempted grand theft for the allegations made against the Wendy's restaurant. The woman's long history of suing large corporations, along with claims against other restaurant chains, cast doubt on her claim with investigators. As of April 2005, the resolution of larceny charges against the woman remained pending.
Initially started as a public health investigation, the case was soon turned over to criminal forensic investigators. Along with the official investigation, the Wendy's chain hired their own team of detectives and forensic experts to test and verify the integrity of their food supply and processing. The chain also offered an award eventually boosted to $100,000 for information about the origin of the finger.
By mid-May 2005, the finger had been identified as that from an associate of Ayala's husband, who had lost the digit in an industrial accident in December 2004.
SEE ALSO Food supply.