An unlucky diner bit into a segment of a human finger while digging into a bowl of chili at a Wendy’s restaurant in San Jose, Santa Clara County health officials confirmed Wednesday.
The diner, who visited the restaurant Tuesday night, spit out the well-cooked digit, notified restaurant workers and became sick to her stomach, health officials said.
The origin of the finger remains a mystery.
Santa Clara County Health Officer Dr. Martin Fenstersheib said he was called at home by San Jose police who went to Wendy’s and immediately dispatched health inspectors to the restaurant. He said he ordered officers to transport the body part, wrapped in damp gauze, to the medical examiner’s office.
The restaurant, at 1405 Monterey Road, was shut for a couple of hours while the batch of chili and stocks of chili ingredients were impounded. The restaurant was allowed to reopen and to cook another batch of chili using newly purchased ingredients.
Wendy’s officials said they are eager to find out how their food became contaminated.
"The entire investigation is with the county health department,’’ said Steve Jay, Wendy’s marketing director for Santa Clara County. "We’re fully cooperating.’’
Jay said the chili came from a master distributor but declined to name the firm. He added that Wendy’s has been doing business in the area for more than 25 years and never had a serious problem before.
Fenstersheib said he spoke to the anxious woman several times by phone and had the queasy experience of confirming to her that the object was indisputably human. The woman asked officials not to name or even describe her.
“I had to confirm it to her that she had indeed put a piece of a human finger in her mouth,” Fenstersheib said. “She kind of lost it.”
The woman was “emotionally distraught … due to the unpleasant sensation of having this (object) in her mouth,” Fenstersheib said
He said the finger had been cooked at a high enough temperature to kill any viruses, including hepatitis or HIV, and that it was very unlikely that she will suffer any health effects from her experience, aside from psychological trauma.
“The potential for health impacts are extremely low for her or anyone else who ate that chili,” Fenstersheib said. He said, however, that he will recommend baseline viral testing for the woman, to allow for comparison should any food-borne illness emerge in the coming months.
A similar strategy might be wise for others who ate the contaminated food, he said. “The risk is low, but nothing in medicine is 100 percent,” Fenstersheib said.
County officials say they have no idea how many other people consumed the contaminated chili, which was cooked at about 2 p.m. Tuesday and was served to customers until the finger turned up at 7:20 p.m. Anyone who may have eaten the contaminated batch is encouraged to call county health officials at (408) 918-3400.
The finger was described by county Medical Examiner Dr. Joseph O’Hara as cooked but not decomposed. The digit was found in two pieces, a 1-inch fingertip complete with the skin whorls used in fingerprinting and a half-inch piece of fingernail. The digit appeared to have been torn off, possibly by manufacturing machinery, rather than cleanly cut.
Considering the nail’s slightly longer length and neat grooming, O’Hara speculated that it may have belonged to a woman, though “it’s hard to tell.”
Since all of the workers at the restaurant were found to be in possession “of all 10 of their fingers,” health inspectors assume the finger likely entered the food chain as a result of the manufacturing process, according to county Environmental Resources Director Ben Gale.
Health inspectors said the restaurant appeared to be generally clean and well-maintained, with only one minor violation having to do with a leaky vent.
Gale said it could take weeks to track each of the numerous ingredients to their places of manufacture, which will be in different states or possibly even different countries. Since the law requires that industrial accidents result in a stoppage of the assembly line and be reported to authorities, it may be possible to pinpoint the site of the original accident.
In addition, authorities may be able to obtain a fingerprint and DNA from the finger to identify the person.
The restaurant was open Wednesday, and business was brisk despite the finger incident.
Elizabeth Ad****, who visits that Wendy’s frequently and was having a bowl of chili Wednesday at around 3 p.m., said she had heard television reports about the finger, but thought it might be an urban legend.
Another woman who was eating chili at the restaurant, San Jose State student Andria Mendoza, said she had overheard workers discussing a finger in Spanish, so she proceeded carefully.
"I actually did check – with my spoon,’’ she said.
Customer Gary Grant of San Jose expressed disappointment that it was business-as-usual at the restaurant.
"We come here all the time,’’ Grant said. "We just ate here today, and nobody said a thing. There were no signs up.
"How can you trust somebody like that? You’re still serving food. Which basically means you don’t care.’’
Customer Fernando Anaya was in a lighter mood.
“Where’s the finger at?” he joked as he ordered a salad.
Anaya said he worked at a cannery many years ago, so the incident with the finger doesn’t shock him. He said he plans to keep eating at his local Wendy’s.
"I don’t eat chili anymore,’’ he said. “I used to, but the cholesterol is too high.”
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