Paul Holmes

Media's haste to condemn Wendy's shows how little it has learned from a litany of past hoaxes

Media's haste to condemn Wendy's shows how little it has learned from a litany of past hoaxes

If you're as cynical as I am, your first reaction upon hearing that a California woman had found a human finger in her Wendy's chili was to wonder whether she had her attorney on speed-dial or had waited until after her "discovery" to seek him out.

Check out urban-legends website snopes.com and you will find all kinds of marvelous stories about allegations of food contamination. (If you're reading this over lunch, you might want to wait.) There's the one about garlic sauce from a Turkish restaurant that was actually semen from an HIV-infected man. Or the one about mayonnaise on a fast-food chicken sandwich that was pus from a tumor. Or the one about a man who got sick because his Outback steak was coated in urine.

All, needless to say, false.

Or try this one: In January 1987, two brothers discovered a two-inch piece of human finger in a can of tripe produced by Juanita's Foods. They took the finger to a local hospital for analysis, the police contacted federal food inspectors, and the supermarket from which the product was purchased pulled it from their shelves. A local paper ran a story, which was picked up by wire services and eventually graduated to national television. The product was pulled from grocery store shelves.

In this case, it turns out the finger wasn't a finger at all, but a curiously shaped piece of tissue that is commonly found in tripe. Unfortunately, by the time the truth made it into print, the company had lost $1 million in sales.

It seems clear that the finger "found" at Wendy's was an actual finger. Police are taking the matter very seriously, for the perfectly sound reason that someone, somewhere is obviously missing a digit. But it's remarkable that after all the hoaxes (remember the epidemic of syringes supposedly found in cans of Pepsi), the initial media coverage barely hinted that things might not be what they seemed.

It wasn't until the police searched the supposed victim's home that newspapers finally reported her history of filing dubious lawsuits. Of course, by that time the story had made national headlines ("Woman bites off more than she can chew"), had become a punch line on late-night television ("Instead of a spoon, they serve it with nail clippers"), and had cost Wendy's a fortune in sales.

The company has handled the crisis responsibly, providing information about its food-processing safeguards. In addition, Wendy's is now offering $100,000 for any information about the origins of the finger. Is it too much to ask that the next time someone "discovers" a strange ingredient in their fast food, the media might react with the same level of responsibility?

  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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