For the Michael and Diane Norman family of Auburn, WA, a weekly tradition has been Pizza Friday. Diane, 48, would alternate picking up pizzas from different restaurants near their home south of Seattle, and she and her husband, their three sons, and their daughter and son-in-law would share them.
“On this particular Friday (Sept. 19, 2014), she elected to pick up some pizza from Domino’s Pizza (in Milton, WA),” says Michael, 50. “She came home with Canadian bacon and pineapple, mushroom and cheese, and one pepperoni and half cheese. It was our normal Friday night order.”
However, this particular Pizza Friday turned out to be anything but normal.
“I threw a couple pieces on my plate, sat down and proceeded to eat,” he recalls. “I took the first bite, chewed it, didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, and I swallowed. Once I swallowed, I started grasping at my throat and I didn’t know what it was. I thought maybe a hard piece of the Canadian bacon or the crust. I really didn’t know. It was really starting to scratch and tear at my throat.”
He quickly drank some juice and some water and then ate a piece of bread to see if that would help.
“He was choking and gagging and clearly was in a lot of pain,” Diane says.
“The bread did help, but my throat was still all scratched up and was still bothering me,” her husband remembers. “At that point, I said, ‘I’m done with this pizza,’ and I tossed it in the garbage. I went upstairs and, soon after that, maybe an hour or so, I started feeling pains in my stomach. They were like a dull, deep pain in my abdomen.”
He told his wife about the pain in his stomach and that he thought it might be related to the pizza, but “she thought it could just be my mind racing,” he says.
The pain continued through the weekend, particularly when he ate anything, and it finally got so bad on Monday that Michael had to take time off work from Boeing, where he’s a software product manager. He went to a medical clinic on Tuesday to try and figure out what was causing the problem.
“The doctor asked if I had passed any blood in my stool, and I said no,” he says. “She suggested acid reflux medication, and I said, ‘No, I don’t think it’s that. I think I actually ingested something and would really would like you to prescribe an X-ray.’”
He had an X-ray taken that same day and the results were emailed back to him on Wednesday, Sept. 24.
“The email said, ‘It’s possible there are two metallic objects, so we need you to get a lateral X-ray,’” says Diane, who works at home as a daycare provider. “I instantly called him and said, ‘You need to get another X-ray right away.’”
So Michael drove up to Valley Medical Center in Renton, had a lateral X-ray done, and got a copy of the results on CD.
“I looked at it and, by golly, just as they stated, there was a linear foreign object inside of me,” he says. Diane adds, “There was one on one side and one on the other.”
The doctor called on Friday and told Michael he needed to immediately go to an emergency room for a CAT scan. At that point, a week had passed since he had eaten the pizza.
After heading up to Renton again for the CAT scan, a doctor came in and told the Normans that a surgeon would soon be visiting with them.
“They said one of the objects was half in and half out of his small intestine, and they had to perform surgery right away,” Diane says.
The doctors first tried a less-invasive endoscopic procedure, which didn’t work, and Michael subsequently had surgery to remove the two 1.5-inch wires on Saturday, Sept. 27.
“Once I came out of surgery, I was in a lot of pain,” he says. “When the nurses came in, I’d tell them everything was OK because I was trying to push through it. When I tried to move or sit up a bit more or I was coughing, it was very painful.”
Michael was discharged from the hospital on Sept. 30 and told not to go back to work for two weeks, not to lift more than 10 pounds for a month, and generally not to overdo because of the risk of a hernia.
While her husband was still in the hospital, Diane remembered that she had put the remaining pizza in the freezer and decided to check it out.
“Just out of curiosity, I looked at the bottom of the pizza, and there was a wire there on the bottom,” she says. “We took a picture of it instantly. The whole thing was very surreal. Our daughter and I just about had a heart attack.”
Another customer complaint
Another Domino’s Pizza customer relates a similar experience, but without the subsequent hospital visit.
Brian McAdams says he ordered pizza delivered to his home in Edgewood, WA, the same Friday night as Diane Norman picked theirs up. He says his wife noticed what looked like a wire bristle on her pizza slice, and he thought he might have swallowed one.
McAdams says he called the Domino’s franchise in Milton and told the manager about the situation.
“He apologized and insisted they would not be charging us for our pizza order,” McAdams says. “He also offered to send us out new pizzas, but I declined.”
Health department inspection
After the Normans filed a complaint with the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, an inspector visited the Milton pizza outlet on Oct. 1 and documented that a wire brush was used to clean the rack inside the oven at the end of the day.
“Some wear observed on the brush bristles,” the Oct. 1 inspection report states.
Another inspection report, this one dated Oct. 8, noted that the brush used to clean the oven had been thrown away the previous week.
Michael Norman’s story isn’t that uncommon. There have been a number of similar cases in the recent past of wire brush bristles being ingested by people, getting stuck in their mouths, throats or digestive systems, and sending them to the hospital.
A U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report from July 2012 notes six such cases in Rhode Island between March 2011 and June 2012. Most had the experience after eating grilled meat, and all fully recovered after surgery.
In May 2013, a Washington state teen had a wire bristle he ingested during a family BBQ surgically removed. And, in June of this year, a Puyallup, WA, woman who had eaten home-grilled chicken had to have emergency surgery after a wire bristle punctured her intestine.
U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) became aware of recurring problems with wire grill brushes and held a press conference in May 2012 to urge the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to conduct a safety review.
“Metal bristles are one topping no one wants on their burger this holiday season,” Schumer stated in a news release. “Grilling season should be a great time for the whole family, not a time to be worried about an emergency visit to the hospital. I urge the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the FDA to launch a safety review of these products and warn consumers about their potential dangers. I’m also urging consumers to use caution when using these metal grill brushes this summer to avoid more accidents like these.”
Also attending that press conference was Chuck Bell, programs director for Consumers Union.
“I don’t know if anything has happened since then,” Bell told Food Safety News.
He noted that since the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was adopted in 2008, CPSC has been required to maintain a searchable database at Saferproducts.gov to report problems with consumer products.
A check of that database shows 10 complaints about problems alleged to have occurred from ingesting wires from grill brushes were submitted between May 2011 and May 2014.
The former chairman of the CPSC, Inez Tenenbaum, indicated in a June 2012 letter to Schumer that the agency was aware of 28 individual cases between 2007 and 2012 involving “detached grill wire bristles,” and that 13 of those involved an emergency-room visit and two required surgery.
CDC has issued some safety recommendations to the public about using wire grill brushes. However, no federal agency has suggested requiring warning labels or pulling them off the market.
“I guess we can (require warning labels),” says Patty Davis, a CPSC spokesperson. “For children’s sleepwear, there are labels on there. I guess we do have that authority.”
She adds that the agency is keeping an eye on the wire grill brushes and looks for a “pattern of defect” in products before flexing its regulatory powers.
“If we find a defect, our enforcement division would take action. That’s what our threshold is,” Davis says. “Our advice to consumers is to inspect your grills and your barbecues for defects, including the bristles.”
There are a number of alternatives available to using wire brushes to clean grills or ovens, including pumice stone, steel wool, moist cloth rags or paper towels.
“Ideally, I would like to see other options used as opposed to the wire brushes because you’re pretty much relying on someone’s eye catching one of those bristles as they’re cleaning the oven,” Michael says.
Diane says she would like to see the brushes taken off the market.
“People say you get in accidents with cars, and they aren’t going to take cars off the market. But there needs to be a major change. If you choose to use them at home, that’s your business, but it’s different for a restaurant,” she says.
Her husband adds, “As a consumer, I don’t think you should have to live in fear every time you eat in an establishment and have to focus on what potentially could be in your meal.”
Pursuing legal remedies
While they do have medical insurance, the Normans decided they would pursue legal action to try and cover lost wages and substantial out-of-pocket hospital bills. A friend recommended food-safety attorney Bill Marler in Seattle. (His law firm, Marler Clark, underwrites Food Safety News).
Marler initially sent three certified letters to the pizza company asking for a legal response to the Norman’s situation, but none was forthcoming. On Dec. 1, he filed a complaint on behalf of the Normans in Pierce County Superior Court against Carpe Diem Pizza Inc., the legal name of the Domino’s franchise in Milton.
“We obviously want them to pay our medical expenses, and we don’t want this to happen to anybody else,” Diane explains. “This was totally preventable on their part. We want other people to be aware this can happen, and they need to change the way they clean.”
“We want to ensure that restaurants actually follow proper cleaning procedures so that there aren’t foreign objects in the food,” Michael says.
Neither Carpe Diem Pizza nor Domino’s has directly responded to the Norman’s complaint. Tim McIntyre, vice president of communications for the chain’s corporate headquarters in Ann Arbor, MI, told media outlets that the company’s franchisees must follow health regulations but otherwise operate independently.
No more Pizza Friday
Michael Norman is back to a regular work schedule and no longer in pain, but he now has a five-inch scar on his abdomen and doesn’t feel like eating pizza anytime soon. In fact, the Norman family hasn’t had any pizza since that night back in September.
“We can honestly say we have not had Pizza Friday since this happened,” Diane Norman says. “When I even slightly think about it, it turns my stomach. I am not ready to go out and buy pizza. Even looking at a pizza, no thanks.”
“I don’t think we’ve fully healed yet,” says Michael. “Maybe at some point, we will.”