Woman Finds Human Finger in Wendy's Chili

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Woman Finds Human Finger in Wendy's Chili

Forensic Medicine Identifies Hoax

Newspaper article

By: Dan Reed

Date: March 24, 2005

Source: San Jose Mercury News

About the Author: Dan Reed is a contributor to the San Jose Mercury News, a weekly newspaper serving the Silicon Valley area of California. It has a circulation of over 800,000.


According to the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, industrial accidents lead to thousands of severed fingertips each year. Only a minority of these incidents occur in the food or leisure industry. One such case did occur in mid-2005, when a piece of index finger, severed at the first knuckle, was found in a pint of frozen chocolate custard purchased at a shop in North Carolina. It happened that an employee of the custard manufacturer had accidentally put his finger into the machine that beats the custard mixture. Fellow employees tried to help him and in the mean-time, an attendant unknowingly scooped out custard containing the body part and served it to a customer.

The frozen custard incident arose from a genuine accident. Most cases of body parts being found in food are cases of mistaken identity—the item may look like a finger but turns out to be something else—or are in fact hoaxes, perpetrated in the hope of financial gain. In the story reproduced below, police soon suspected a hoax, when part of a finger was found in a portion of Wendy's chili. After all, none of the Wendy's employees was missing a finger and the offending body part had not been "simmering" for a lengthy time, so had probably not come from the kitchen. Police suspected that the finger might have been planted, and tests used in forensic medicine confirmed their suspicions.


SAN JOSE, Calif.— Wendy's chili is not made out of people—well, it is, but just a little bit.

Santa Clara County health officials confirmed Wednesday that the thing a woman bit on when enjoying her chili at a Monterey Highway Wendy's was, in fact, a human finger. They're not sure whose. It was about an inch-and-a-half, with a longish, nicely groomed nail.

And while it gave the woman—Anna Ayala, 39, of Las Vegas—a bad case of the willies, it likely caused no physical illness, officials said.

That's because the finger was safely cooked, simmering along at 170 degrees with more traditional chili ingredients, such as tomatoes, beef and beans.

At about 7:20 p.m. Tuesday, Ayala, in town with her family to drop off her in-laws who live in San Jose, scooped up a mouthful of chili.

It was her first visit to a Wendy's. "I'm more of a Carl's Jr. person," she said Thursday night.

"Suddenly something crunchy was in my mouth," she said, "and I spit it out."

After much examination, she and her tablemates realized just what the special ingredient was. Then the vomiting commenced.

Police and county health officials were called to the Wendy's, but no one there was missing any digits.

"We had everyone kind of show us they had 10 fingers, and everything was OK there," said Ben Gale, director of the county's Department of Environmental Health.

In confirming it was a finger, the county medical examiner also found that it wasn't badly decomposed and had a solid set of fingerprints. Conceivably, officials said, police could lift a print and perhaps match it to a partially fingered person through a database. Then ask, what happened?

For now, officials figure—since it was a jagged cut—it may have happened on a meat grinder.

In any case, the county shut the Wendy's for a while and impounded all the remaining chili and all the ingredients used to make it, which is whipped up on site. They hope to track all the fixings to try to find the source of the finger.

It is, of course, possible it was planted by someone who wants to cash-in on a gross-out civil suit.

"That's certainly plausible," said Medical Examiner Joseph O'Hara, "but then where would she have gotten the finger?"

All involved say they've never experienced anything like it. And Wendy's spokesman Bob Bertini said never in the fast-food chain's 35 years has a body part showed up in the food.

Wendy's founder Dave Thomas always used to say, "Quality is our recipe."

Maybe so, but they might want to rejigger the chili recipe.


Anna Ayala quickly hired a lawyer to put in a compensation claim against Wendy's, which aroused the suspicion of police investigating the case. A woman from the town of Pahrump, sixty miles west of Las Vegas, came forward and said she had lost a fingertip in an encounter with a leopard a month before the Wendy's incident. She'd last seen it packed in ice in a Las Vegas emergency room, after doctors failed to re-attach it. Neither she, nor the hospital, knew what had happened to the fingertip and thought it possible that, somehow, it had ended up in the chili. DNA testing was discussed but not carried out, as the woman's fingertip sounded as if it was much smaller than the one under investigation.

Meanwhile, Wendy's sales were down by millions of dollars because of the unfavorable publicity and workers had to be laid off in some of its restaurants in northern California. The company wanted the case settled fast and offered a reward for information. This led to a tip off that identified the owner of the finger as a co-worker of Ayala's husband, a construction worker who had had an industrial accident.

On April 21, Ayala was arrested on charges of attempted grand larceny. The fingertip had allegedly been sold by its owner to settle a debt and ended up in Ayala's possession. She then planted it in her Wendy's meal in an attempt to get money from the company. Investigators discovered she had filed thirteen similar claims in the past in either her own name or in those of her children's, none of which appears to have been successful. Her husband was, at the time, in jail for identity theft charges, but he has also been implicated in the Wendy's case. In September, the pair pleaded guilty to the charges against them. It is clear that there was no link between Wendy's and the severed finger, but it still took months for sales to recover.

Forensic medicine, the application of medical principles to aid in solving a crime or to present legal testimony, is a growing medical specialty in the United States and was paramount in confirming the hoax perpetrated on Wendy's. In forensics laboratories, genetic material (DNA, deoxyribonucleic acid) can be analyzed from a variety of human samples including blood, semen, saliva, urine, hair, buccal (cheek) cells, tissues, or bones. DNA extracted from these samples is analyzed in a lab and results from these studies are compared to DNA analyzed from known samples. DNA extracted from a sample obtained from a crime scene (such as the finger in the chili at Wendy's) is then compared and with DNA extracted from the victim or suspect. In this case, the finger was confirmed by DNA testing to match the co-worker's DNA. Forensic pathologists also use DNA comparison methods to identify human remains in disaster situations.


Web sites

ABC News. "Despite Finger, Body Parts in Food Rare." 〈http://abcnews.go.com/US/print?id=726139〉 (accessed November 19, 2005).

Riley, Donald E. "DNA Testing: An Introduction For Non-Scientists." Scientific Testimony. 〈http://www.scientific.org/tutorials/articles/riley/riley.html〉 (accessed November 20, 2005).

USA Today. "Finger in Wendy's Chili Traced to Husband's Co-Worker." 〈http://www.usatoday.com/money/industries/food/2005-05-13-wendys-finger_x.htm〉 (accessed November 19, 2005).