I Smell a McRat
First, a rat. Next, a load of bullshit.
Can't wait to see what McDonald's serves up for Thanksgiving.
See, Chrissy Haley isn't suing the Southlake McDonald's and its corporate parent for $1.7 million just because she and her nanny found a dead rat in her Bacon Ranch Salad last summer. It's because, in the aftermath, the restaurant spouting family values has acted conniving, uncooperative, ignorant, apathetic and downright dishonest, almost as if it didn't give a rat's ass about customers.
All the wife of Dallas Cowboys assistant coach Todd Haley sought was an acknowledgment. An apology. Some peace of mind. But given McDonald's indifference, Chrissy's left with physical side effects from drastically altered eating habits, psychological side effects from the uncertainty of diseases the rat carried and, in the end, a drastic attempt to challenge the credibility of one of America's most powerful and popular institutions.
"This whole thing has opened my eyes to the fact that McDonald's really doesn't care," Chrissy says. "They act like they're all about children and mainstream America, but they're responsible for selling me a salad with a rat in it, and they've done absolutely nothing about it. They think they can get away with it, but I'm not going to let 'em forget about what they sold me or how they treated me."
McDonald's has long thrived as an alluring alchemy of mass-marketed crapola, unhealthy enough to avoid yet ubiquitous enough to indulge.
But a rat? Not in the corner, but in the food?! Buh-da-buh-buh-BUH...I'm Hatin' It!
Attempting to muffle its most damaging publicity since Super Size Me, McDonald's has offered up a deep-fried serving of counter-accusations and comical stupidity. Other than a single scripted statement, restaurant owner Ken Lobato has been mum, as have McDonald's local attorneys, deferring to corporate headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois, to 'splain their stance.
"I'll go so far as to tell you that from reviewing the facts of our investigation, there is absolutely no reason to believe that object came from Ken Lobato's restaurant," says McDonald's U.S.A. spokesman Bill Whitman. "Likewise, there is no evidence or reason to believe the object ever passed through Ken Lobato's restaurant."
From those statements, one can deduce that McDonald's believes the rat was placed in the salad after it was given to Chrissy. Perhaps by Chrissy herself?
Says Whitman, "I can't at this time speak to whether or not this was an act of fraud."
Since it will not denounce the hoax theory, perhaps McDonald's intends to lean on it when the case goes to trial. Before then—and before we accept Whitman's argument—he should probably delve a tad deeper into the case. "Nobody wants to find out the origin of that object more than Ken, his team and us," Whitman continues. "We take this very seriously. Our reputation is on the line."
McOops. Contradicting that commitment to thoroughness is the fact that during our phone interview Whitman once references high marks given Lobato's restaurant by the "Irving Health Department" and later refers to the location of the Southlake McDonald's as "Irving County." When gently reminded that the restaurant doesn't sit in some fictional Wild West territory complete with tumbleweeds and horseback commuters, Whitman deadpans, "Well, where is it?"
Since Whitman, Lobato, McDonald's Dallas-based lawyer David Whitehurst and store employees refuse to divulge details concerning Cause No. 348 220912 06, the only way to determine how accidentally or intentionally a rat wound up in a salad is to hop in Chrissy's Ford Expedition on June 5, 2006.
On a sultry, sunny Monday, Todd Haley is at Cowboys headquarters in Valley Ranch finishing up a minicamp. At the family's upscale, two-story Colleyville home—past the horse farms; through winding, wooded roads; last cul-de-sac on your right—23-year-old live-in au pair Katy Kelley is watching three of the Haleys' four daughters: Ella (3 months), Kady (18 months) and Peyton (5).
Heading home from Southlake, Chrissy veers toward a place she knows will make her kids' day. A place she eats at three times a week. McDonald's.
She pulls into the drive-through lane at 2155 W. Southlake Blvd. at 2:59 p.m. Chrissy had lunch earlier but can rarely resist a favorite that she and Kelley often share—a Bacon Ranch Salad with grilled chicken. Or, as it reads on the label just below the "I'm Lovin' It!" sticker, "#76 Ranch SLD-Grl."
"I've lost track of how many times I've eaten it," Chrissy says, recently recounting the day in her living room. "Countless."
She pays the $13.81 bill and places two sacks and her Diet Coke in the passenger seat for the five-minute drive home. In the kitchen Kelley removes the salad, lays it on the wooden breakfast table, opens the clear top from the black, round plastic container and immediately squeezes out the packet of vinaigrette dressing. Then, as she has for years, she closes the lid and shakes the container to blend it just right.
As the kids dig into their Happy Meals, the women begin eating their Crappy Meal.
And so far, the salad tastes normal. And, with the appearance of chicken, grape tomatoes, shaved carrots, hickory-smoked bacon, cheese and mixed greens, it looks normal too. Chrissy takes her first bite with a metal fork. Kelley takes "seven or eight," before her black plastic McDonald's utensil bumps into something. Forking aside a big piece of lettuce, she initially sees "a color I never see" in the salad. Standing up and then crouching down, she identifies the mystery meat—a 5-inch dead rat, drenched in dressing, wholly intact from whiskers to tail, on its back, mouth agape.
"I totally freaked out," Kelley says. "I was screaming and crying and shaking and throwing a fit. I couldn't talk. I just pointed and ran and threw up in the sink."
Says Chrissy, "It was like a horror movie."
After vomiting herself, Chrissy closes the salad lid and calls for help: the police (who tell her no crime has been committed), the health department (which warns her not to touch or surrender the rat), the McDonald's (which inexplicably asks her to bring the rat to the restaurant).
"I was a complete wreck. No way I could've driven," she says. "All I could think about was the next bite...I was going to feed [18-month-old] Kady."
Chrissy is on the phone with Todd when Lobato finally arrives. Having turned a five-minute drive into a 25-minute wait, he carries a McDonald's sack scribbled with "Haley." Lobato is seemingly there for one purpose: rodent retrieval.
"He never asked if I was OK, never said he was sorry," Chrissy says. "He was real monotone, almost a 'Who cares?' attitude."
Chrissy points Lobato to the kitchen table, where he briefly eyes the rat, closes the lid and begins sliding the salad toward his sack.
"He told me he needed to take it. Told me I should trust McDonald's," Chrissy says. "But by then it was too late. He wasn't taking anything."
According to the lawsuit, Lobato tells the women, "This kind of thing could happen anywhere, even Ruth's Chris Steak House."
"I told him it didn't happen there, it happened at your McDonald's," Chrissy says. "But he really didn't care."
After 10 minutes, Lobato heads for the door when Chrissy asks for a card, a number, anything. To this day she carries his response in her purse. Scrawled on the top of Chrissy's original receipt: "Ken."
Chrissy takes the salad and places it in her garage refrigerator's freezer. The women sit down, exhale, and the fun really begins.
"Once I calmed down it hit me," Kelley says. "All those diseases..."
In this desensitized age of chomping eel labia and sucking bull brains for $50,000 on Fear Factor, $1.7 mil for nibbling on a salad only Shrek could appreciate seems a bargain. But this isn't the pissed-off employee spitting in your burrito or finding a pube in your soup, it's the reality of eating potentially poisonous food. "You have no idea how disgusting it is until it happens to you," Kelley says.
It's at this point you'd expect to hear from Todd, the assertive, animated passing game coordinator for America's Team. If he can regularly go nose-to-nose with Terrell Owens, surely Ronald McDonald's going to be a pushover. Except that Todd is between a rat and a hard place. He works for Bill Parcells, an old-school coach who hates modern-age distractions, especially high-profile lawsuits.
In a tumultuous 12 months Todd has been shoved by Parcells, chastised and ignored by T.O. and forced now to walk the fine line between standing up for his wife and kissing up to his boss.
"This incident has thrust Todd into the uncomfortable position of trying to be supportive of his wife without being a distraction to his career," Dallas-based sports agent and Casterline Law Firm business manager Scott Casterline relays from Todd, who declined interview requests while preparing for Thursday's game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "He sincerely hopes McDonald's will follow through on its promises to accept responsibility and do what's right, so his family can get on with their lives and he can continue to help the Cowboys get into the playoffs."
Though deflecting the issue publicly, Todd has endured good-natured—albeit misguided—ribbing from his team privately. On the flight home after an emotional win over the Carolina Panthers October 29, Owens and quarterback Tony Romo served their coach a victory salad—adorned with plastic rats.
"People will try to make light of it; it's human nature," Chrissy says. "We didn't want to be ultra-sensitive because we knew they had good intentions. But I didn't think it was funny. No, I'm not over this whole ordeal. And no, I'll probably never get over it."
With her husband bolted to the background and Kelley recently returning to her native Nova Scotia to attend college, Chrissy faces her daily angst alone. She guards her comments, granting her only interview to the Dallas Observer, and even more carefully watches what she eats, concocting a homemade salad only after breaking apart heads of lettuce and meticulously washing each peeled leaf.
"All I could eat for weeks was toast or rolled-up turkey and cheese," she says. "I still sometimes start to take a bite of something and out of nowhere I start gagging, even throwing up. At a PTA meeting one of the moms brought in a McDonald's cup. It all came back to me. I got chills."
Both women have had blood and stool samples tested repeatedly over the last five and a half months and are undergoing sessions with Dallas clinical psychologist Dr. Rycke Marshall. Though each has been diagnosed with stress disorders, their physical health is clean. "I know the doctors keep telling me I'm fine, but I'm not convinced I didn't catch something serious," Kelley says. "I have nightmares that something's inside me."
On July 20, Whitehurst, videotaped by Chrissy's attorneys, removed the salad from the freezer and placed it in a climate-controlled FedEx shipping container. During the process, Chrissy says, Whitehurst promised Todd, "This is our responsibility. We'll make it right."
According to Scott's father and Chrissy's lead attorney, Cecil W. "Cas" Casterline, Whitehurst assured them the rat would be overnighted to Kansas State University, and autopsy results that could potentially solve the case's mysteries would be available the following Monday.
Since that day, however, the Casterlines' phone calls have been unreturned. Their attempts to retrieve the rat—which they believe to be a juvenile roof rat—have been unsuccessful. And the peace of mind they hoped to obtain through the autopsy is nowhere to be found.
"There was no autopsy performed, and there was never going to be one," says Cas, who claims Whitehurst later admitted as much during pre-lawsuit mediation in late September. "I have my doubts the rat was even sent anywhere. It's all been one big fabrication for the sole purpose of McDonald's getting its hands on the rat. We've asked for it back, but we'll probably never see it again."
Says Whitman when asked about the autopsy, "It would be highly inappropriate for me to comment on something like the details of conversations between attorneys."
In a companion guide to the National Research Council's Infectious Diseases of Mice and Rats, UT-Southwestern Medical Center's Dr. Steven P. Pakes details that rats can carry—through saliva, paws, feces and urine—30 diseases harmful, even fatal, to humans, including bubonic plague and meningitis.
"Unless it's a really odd strain of disease, you'd know if you had anything serious within 72 hours," says Tarrant County Environmental Health Manager David Jefferson. "After five months, you're in the clear."
Says Scott Casterline, "We have infectious disease specialists telling us that even if the bacterial risk has expired, serious viral infection remains a real danger."
None of this is particularly soothing to Chrissy, who for days after ingesting the salad couldn't eat but continued to breast-feed Ella before being forced to formula because her malnourished body decreased milk production. Cas Casterline delivered the news that she might have passed on a disease to her infant daughter.
"It was a difficult revelation," Cas says. "But for Chrissy and her family's safety, it had to be done. You'd like to think McDonald's would provide for an independent medical exam. But they don't want us to know, or anybody to know, the truth. They just want it all to quietly go away."
Says Chrissy, "Knowing I may have given something horrible to my daughter...it just made everything more devastating."
McDonald's, like many of the biggest and oldest fast-food chains, has a history of customers allegedly finding objects in food: broken glass, hypodermic needles, maggots, chewing gum, even condoms. Some, not unlike the infamous finger in the Wendy's chili, turned out to be hoaxes. Others, like a 9-year-old Toronto boy who bit into a severed rat head lodged between patties of his Big Mac, are settled out of court with confidentiality clauses.
But McDonald's No. 16322 boasts a history of relative cleanliness. Last April the restaurant was slapped with only four inspection violations: raw eggs being left out to possibly cross-contaminate nearby pancake batter; no thermometer in a refrigerator; dirty rings in a wash basin; no Heimlich maneuver safety poster.
"In general, if we had more restaurants like it we'd be very happy," Tarrant County's Jefferson says. "There's never been any evidence of the presence of rodents. No rub marks on the baseboards. No feces. Nothing."
Adding to the maze of confusion, Jefferson says he remembers only one other incident since 1981 of a whole rodent found in food.
Though McDonald's and Jefferson indicate there is no reason to believe a rat inside the restaurant hopped into a salad, there's also compelling evidence to suggest Chrissy Haley isn't lying—chiefly, the lack of motive. Living in an exquisite home and married to a husband with a lofty career and lucrative salary, Chrissy needs neither fame nor fortune.
"McDonald's first line of defense in these cases is always that it's a hoax," Cas says. "But we won't be intimidated by McDonald's big blowhard lawyers, and we won't succumb to a war of attrition by running out of money or time. We're fully prepared to go to trial and let a jury hear the facts."
McDonald's is expected to return its response to the original seven-page petition next week. After discovery, depositions and court motions, the trial could start as early as September 2007. Until then, try connecting these dots:
Since 4-pound bags of lettuce arrive at McDonald's from wholesalers only after vigorous chopping, the fact the rat was found whole appears to rule out that origination. And since a live rat in a salad would likely eat the lettuce and then violently gnaw its way through the flimsy container, it seems safe to assume the rodent was deceased upon encasement.
Says Jefferson, "An autopsy would've answered a lot of questions. Like, did it have lettuce in its belly?"
Given Chrissy's comfortable lifestyle and the fact that the salad was never out of sight and the lid was open less than 10 seconds before she and Kelley began eating, an elaborate hoax seems unlikely. Which, unless David Blaine's pulling a fast one, takes us back to McDonald's. Of Jefferson's likely scenarios, the most plausible involves restaurant employees.
"There are a couple possibilities, and the truth is we may never know where that rat came from," Jefferson says. "Is it possible an employee found it out by the dumpster and, whether upset at a manager or playing some sort of prank, placed it in the salad? Yes."
It's Friday, November 10, at the McDonald's, a couple blocks south of Southlake Carroll High School in a prominent shopping center anchored by Albertsons and Hobby Lobby. Outside is a sign that exclaims "McRib is Back!" and inside an inviting McPlayPlace. There's an employee contemplating the crankiness of the McFlurry machine, two thumbing through a manual and another scarfing down a cinnamon roll. Behind the counter, on the menu marquee beams a reminder: Bacon Ranch Salad $4.19.
Since I don't think McDonald's can possibly screw up orange juice, I order a large cup, along with a side of explain-to-me-how-y'all-served-a-salad-with-a-rat-in-it?
"It's corporate policy not to talk about those things," says the only worker in the joint not speaking Spanish right now. "You're not going to get nothing from us."
The place appears clean enough, yet something seems fishier than the fillet sandwiches. Not because of what's happening. But because of what isn't. In 40 minutes, only three customers walk in. Minutes later, a half-mile down the street at Wendy's, 11 people are eating and three more are in line.
Perhaps the public also smells a McRat.
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