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Fingered by Folklore

Urban legend history points the way toward a healthy skepticism of food scare stories

By Steve Palopoli

WHEN THE finger-in-the-chili story broke, it seemed like the entire world was set to hurl. But there was one group that failed to experience sudden nausea, dizziness or other symptoms associated with sick-ass news of alleged food contamination: followers of American folklore and urban legend. These folks were skeptical to say the least, and many called bullshit immediately on the digital display that supposedly went down in Wendy's.

The reason: they've seen this story, or one like it, before, and 99.9 percent of the time, it's not true. Flipping through the works of urban legend pioneer Jan Brunvard, or better yet doing some reading on snopes.com, the premier urban legend site on the Internet, reveals how many food scares are the stuff of legend—and nothing more.

Contrary to what a friend of a friend may have heard:

  • McDonald's is not the world's largest purchaser of cow eyeballs, nor do their hamburgers contain worm meat. Also, their shakes are not partially made of Styrofoam, and McFlurries are not made of feathers.
  • Bubble Yum does not contain spider eggs.
  • Roast fetus is not a delicacy in Thailand. Swear to God.
  • Chinese restaurants do not use cat meat in their food (believe it or not, this urban legend dates back centuries in England and the United States).
  • Mountain Dew does not shrink your testicles or lower your sperm count.
  • Also, ignore the mass emails your ³helpful² co-worker in the next cubicle keeps sending you, because the following never—repeat, never—happened:

  • A woman in Holland did not eat Mediterranean food accented by a garlic sauce that turned out to be HIV-infected semen. Seriously, this did not happen, nor did any of the many variants of this story, which include food from several ethnicities (thank you, diversity training) and for some reason is often fixated on the idea that there were seven men involved in the seasoning. Who started this rumor, Prince?
  • An Atlanta restaurant was not caught accepting a shipment of rats and mice.
  • HIV-positive blood has not been found to have been slipped into the ketchup dispensers of fast food restaurants.
  • A human penis was not found in a jar of fruit punch. This one seemed unlikely anyway. Who would have the balls?
  • Urine was not found in the meat at a chain restaurant after a customer became sick from eating it (the good news: urine in your meat would not make you sick; the bad news: there would be urine in your meat).
  • Mikey from the Life cereal commercials did not die from mixing Pop Rocks and Dr. Pepper. This one was already so prevalent by 1979 that General Foods, who produced Pop Rocks, had to take out full-page ads in publications across the country explaining that their product would not make kids' stomachs explode under any circumstances.
  • There are far too many such urban legends—and too many dozens of variations on each—to cover them all here. As even this small sampling demonstrates, racism, homophobia and a general fear of the unfamiliar have fueled our society's fear of food for a mighty long time.

    Incidentally, many former and current owners of fast food chain franchises will tell you that the purposeful (and often hilariously improbable) planting of foreign objects for profit is an old, old scam—often tried, rarely (if ever) successful. So the next time you hear what sounds like a crazy story about food, chances are it really is a crazy story. Always check out tried-and-true resources like snopes.com to get the real story.


    Send a letter to the editor about this story to letters@metronews.com.

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    From the June 8-14, 2005 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

    Copyright © Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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