Murphy: Future Urban Legend, or True Story?

January 23, 2018 10:30 AM
Of all the horrific allegations one might make about a restaurant’s unsanitary practices, few could top this one: A manager who (allegedly) told an employee to serve up worm-filled burgers.

Apocryphal stories have a lifespan that is often extraordinary.

To this day I remember my high school history teacher — can’t recall his name, but I damn sure remember this incident — who repeated on an annual basis a lengthy story about a close friend of his (naturally), who had a close relative (naturally) who worked in a meat processing plant. You probably already know where this is going, but to cut to the chase, upon bringing home a package of hot dogs from the plant for a backyard cookout one weekend, the man took a bite of his frank, only to realize he’d bit into a wedding ring.

When you’re 14, that punchline leaves an indelible impression, especially when accompanied by mirthless chuckling from the teacher while he’s speculating as to how a wedding ring ends up in a hot dog.

Could that have actually happened? Sure; it’s possible.

Did that wedding-ring-in-a-hot-dog event happen to that guy’s friend of a relative? Doubtful.

Now known as urban legends, far-fetched fables such as that particular high-school highlight are tales people of all ages and all levels of credibility love to embellish and repeat ad nauseum.

And nausea’s the appropriate word for this urban “news” story.

Seems that an employee at a suburban St. Louis Steak ‘n Shake restaurant went on Facebook and posted what she claimed were photos of live worms wriggling around in a ground beef patty she was about to cook at the store.

According to a report by the Associated Press, the employee, Melissa White, alleged that she “found worms in a steak burger patty she planned to cook for herself Jan. 5 at the restaurant.”

Upon bringing it to the attention of store management, which one would naturally do in such a circumstance, White claimed that she was fired when she refused to continue serving the meat, and as she was leaving the store, she told a table of patrons about her alleged discovery.

That can’t be good for business.

So: Urban legend, or true crime horror story?

To determine which, it’s necessary to consider three elements in this story and assess the credibility of each one.

The Plausibility Factor
First, whether there were worms in the meat. There definitely are two worm-like creatures visible in the photos White posted on her Facebook page (check it out here), and it’s certainly not impossible for larvae of the beef tapeworm to become embedded in bovine muscle tissue and end up in ground beef.

Unlikely, but not impossible.

Second, is it plausible that, if her story is true, the manager of a restaurant would insist that she continue to serve customers from that batch of beef? That such a development would be the outcome of discovering worms in a store’s meat supply seems awfully far-fetched.

Would a manager want to maintain “business as usual” status in the restaurant, pending further investigation? Of course. But demanding that an employee serve contaminated food, then firing that person on the spot for refusing to go along? Then allowing said employee to stroll out among the diners and inform them, “Hey, did you know there’s worms in that steak burger you’re eating”?

Same odds as finding a wedding ring in your next hotdog.

There is an important coda to this story, as well.

According to the St. Louis Dispatch, the restaurant chain has filed a federal lawsuit against Ms. White, alleging that her Facebook post was false. According to the filing, managers, as well as a health inspector, checked patties in the restaurant and found no worms. According to the lawsuit, Ms. White refused to show them the patty in question, or to cooperate in the investigation.

That should put a stop to anyone accepting the woman’s story at face(book) value. If a health inspector with even minimal experience was involved, he/she would demand to see visible evidence of the worm-infested patty or patties, would embargo the entire lot of meat on the premises and would authorize tests to determine if there was actual contamination.

When he/she concluded that no worms were present, that’s definitive evidence refuting White’s accusation and, in fact, is the basis of the company’s lawsuit — which is only an attempt to set the record straight, of course; no foodservice employee is going to have assets that could remotely satisfy whatever punitive judgment a court might impose.

However, how many ordinary consumers, the future customers of that Steak ’n Shake (or any other store in the chain), are willing to accept the validity of a health inspector’s findings? Or the veracity of a news report, if one is eventually published, recording a favorable outcome for the company in its lawsuit?

With the toxic environment that’s been created around “fake news” and the constant proclamation of “alternative facts” at the highest levels of government, I predict that even if Steak ’n Shake prevails in its lawsuit not only will the worms-in-your-burger story live on as an urban legend, the minority of people who actually read or hear about the resolution of those allegations will continue to dispute whatever findings a health inspector or a judge might proclaim.

Partly, we’ve become distrustful of public institutions and the expertise of the people who, in this case, are supposed to have food-safety expertise.

And partly — sadly — for some people, it’s just far more satisfying to retell tall tales, such as this wormy burger story.

Especially if you have a captive audience of impressionable young students.

Editor’s Note: The opinions in this commentary are those of Dan Murphy, a veteran journalist and commentator.

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