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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Experience · #1802086
You can't make this stuff up..this happened in the 80's
The Great Hormel Chili Story

Sometimes we are thrust into unusual situations and learn more about how things operate than we care to….here’s one of them

         The day had been long and boring. Doing the usual reports, filling out checklists, answering phone calls, anything but the actual job that I had been hired to do. My job was tech support and I hadn’t touched a single piece of equipment in days, just paperwork. The evening was to be different as my wife was out of state visiting her sick mom and I would be home to take care of the kids. A thought I had was to make the evening special and entertain the kids, so I stopped by the movie rental for a movie and then to the grocery store to fix our favorite; chili and cheese hot dogs. Buns and grated cheese in hand, ballpark franks (all beef was our favorite) and the last item on the list, Hormel Chili in a can. I hurried home to relieve the babysitter and was anxious (and hungry) to make our dinner, then to sit down and relax to watch a videotape with the kids.

         An air of excitement was at hand as I prepared the hot dogs and chili on the stove (microwaves weren’t around as of yet or at least not affordable for the average guy). The kids were excited because it wasn’t everyday I could sit with them, much less watch a movie with them. My job at that time entailed working on the B1 bomber project and demanded long hours along with some travel at least one week out of the month, so this was defiantly a treat for all of us. Hot dogs boiled and plumped as advertised, as steam rose from the heated chili, I knew it was time to serve. Setting up the plates for the kids I lavished chili on top of the hot dogs and buns and then sprinkled them generously with grated cheese on top. My plate was the last to set up so I scraped the bottom of the chili pot and did the same with mine sprinkling cheese everywhere. The kids had already wolfed most of their dogs down so they could watch the movie and I proceeded to bite down into mine.

         A bite or two went smooth and then it hit. The third bite down I felt a sharp pain in my mouth and knew something was wrong. Immediately I spit out the offending dog and looked thru it to find what could be so sharp. Did I break a tooth? Was there something in the hot dog? Did something fall into the cooking pan? All these thoughts raced in my mind as I dug into the bite of hot dog I just spit out. There, gleaming in the chili, was a staple from a office stapler! I thought “man, that’s weird”. I asked the kids if they had been playing with a stapler that day, and thought by chance one was left or had fallen in the cooking pot and I hadn’t noticed. All the kids swore that no staples had been used that day. I shrugged and went back to finishing my meal when the next bite produced the same pain I felt before. Spitting this one out I found a second staple and dug thru the rest of the chili to discover a third one yet. My mind went into panic mode as I snatched the plates from my kids with them protesting loudly that I would remove one of their favorite meals right before them!

         Now I was demanding. You kids must’ve been playing with a stapler or something! All three swore an oath of death that no staples were used that day and then it was my oldest son who said “Dad, we don’t even own a stapler!” The look on my face had to been something as I realized the staples were put in the chili before the can was opened! I apologized to the kids, and explained that I had found sharp objects in my chili and I would fix them something else (which was hot dogs and cheese, no chili) and looked thru the rest of the chili to make sure no other staples existed. Finding no others and asking the kids repeatedly if they had swallowed anything sharp (to which they said no, they would have spit them out also). Thinking about it I remembered that I had retrieved the bottom of the pot and the metal would have naturally fallen there. Relaxing a little more, knowing the kids were probably ok, I started at first to flush with anger at whoever tried to pull this stunt then slowly turned to fear that this may be more than just an incident and more likely a deliberate sabotage of the food supply.

         This all came to mind because this happened just a week after the big Tylenol scare. Someone had been putting poison capsules in Tylenol bottles on store shelves and people were reported dying or barely hanging onto life after popping a pill just for a headache. All products were pulled and Tylenol lost millions. They finally caught the guy who had some kinda gripe with the world and the coward decided to kill others rather than end his own miserable life. I think he’s still rotting in jail and in my opinion, that’s a good thing. Thank this guy for the all the sealed bottles, the extra cost of product and uneasiness we all suffer wondering if we take anything now it will intentionally cause our death. So here I stood with what I thought was the beginning of some other plan to hurt and maim people and me and my kids just happened to be the lucky recipients of this ordeal.

         At least I had the forethought to gather the staples and chili can together so I could figure out who I should call about this. The next morning I drove into work and checked thru the security gate flashing my badge as I went. Getting into the office I told my buddies what had happened and what I thought about the staples and how it related to the Tylenol thing. “Man, you should call Channel 9 news!” “Naw, call the cops because you have a criminal case on your hands!” Ideas and suggestions flew and more people joined in after they found out what was going on. It was about then my supervisor walked over to find out what the loud conversation was all about. After spilling the story to him he said “If you really want to do something about this you should call the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).  “Sounds like a good idea to me” I said and started immediately looking for the phone number (they weren’t exactly easy to find in the phone book). The internet was in its infancy and one did not call the FDA a lot. After finding the right number and half a dozen transfers later I landed with Mr. Williams and explained what I found in the chili.

“So Mr. Light, you want to file a complaint?”
Yea, thought you would like to know they’re shipping cans of chili with staples in them.
“Did you swallow them?”
No, they were sharp so I spit them out
“Did you break a tooth?”
No, as I said they were sharp and I spit them out.
“Did you get injured in any way?”

         By now I’m starting to fume and I replied to Mr. Williams. “Look, I don’t think you get the point here. I’m reporting that there are sharp objects in cans of chili” “Well, what would you like to do if you didn’t get injured?” Now I’m really getting upset and start yelling at the guy. “Man, what don’t you get here? Someone is putting sharp objects in commercial cans of chili that I ALMOST fed to my kids!”

“Do you want to file a report?”
“Ok, give me the information from the can; do you have it with you?”
Yes, it’s a can if Hormel Chili
“Wait a minute; does it have meat in it?”
Yea, says so on the can

         At this point Mr. Williams then says “Oooh, you need to report this to the USDA because it has meat in it.”  I just stood there dumbfounded looking into the phone wondering if I landed on another planet. “Alright, can you get me there (number given) and I jot it down. Mr. Williams then thanks me for reporting the incident and then asks “is there anything else I can do for you?” “Yea, don’t eat the chili, especially if it has meat in it.” And with that I hung up the phone. I sat at my desk for awhile thinking how strange the whole conversation went and trying to decide if my buddies were right and I should just call the news channels, then decided to give it one more try.

         Again, after calling the phone number and getting transferred around, I finally ended up with Ms. West.

“Can I help you?”
Yea, I want to report that I found metal staples in a can of chili.
“Did you swallow them?”
No, they were sharp so I spit them out
“Did you break a tooth?”
No, as I said they were sharp and I spit them out.
“Did you get injured in any way?”
NO, as I said I spit them out!
“You realize I have to file a report”

         Thank God, yes! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you! I almost fed these to my kids and it was pure luck that I wound up with them instead! Ms. West paused for a few seconds then started telling me what was going to happen. “Mr. Light, once I file this report you’re going to receive a series of phone calls, including from Hormel and they will want to know if you are filing a lawsuit. Are you, Mr. Light filing a lawsuit?” “No, I just want someone to know there are sharp objects in the chili and before anyone else DOES swallow them, someone should know and stop it.” “Well, thank you Mr. Light and I will contact you again shortly. Do you have the can, with the staples and the lid?” I froze for a second because I realized that I had the can and staples but I threw away the lid. “No, I don’t have them with me but I can have them tomorrow” was my reply. “Good, bring them with you tomorrow to work and I’ll arrange for a pick up then.” With that Ms. West hung up and I thought “can I find that lid?” I relaxed after a few seconds when it dawned on me I was the only one who took out the trash anyway and it would be right on top of the heap. Sure enough it was there and I gathered my prizes for the next day.

         I had just hung up the phone with Ms. West when a call from Hormel came in.

“Mr. Light?”
“Did you just file a report with the USDA?”
“What was the problem?”
I found metal staples in your chili
“Did you swallow them?”
No, they were sharp so I spit them out
“Did you break a tooth?”
Nooooo, as I said they were sharp and I spit them out.
“Did you get injured in any way?”
NOOOOO, as I said I spit them out!
“Well, are you filing a lawsuit?”

         At this point after hearing the insulting tone and demeanor of this guy I started chewing on him. "Look, I don't know what you people are up to, I should have called the news instead .They can handle this. Everyone acts surprised when I tell them that there are freakein sharp pieces of metal in chili and all you want to do is give me the third degree!  Somebody has to know how to fix this or transfer me to someone who gives a s**t!” Now the guy from Hormel gives me the brush off. “Well Mr. Light, the best I can do for you send you a coupon for a can of chili” I stared vehemently into the phone and I’m sure the guy on the other end could feel the wires melting.

Ok, now let me get this straight; I report you have sharp metal pieces in your chili.
“Yes Mr. Light”
Then you ask me these really dumb questions that everyone else has asked (and is in the report) and then ask if I’m suing you.
“Yes, Mr. Light”
Then when I tell you I just want someone to know about it and to fix it the best you can do is offer me a coupon for the same chili that has known sharp pieces of metal in it?
“Well, yes Mr. Light that’s all I can do for you”
You guys are idiots and deserve to be sued and while you’re at it, shove that coupon where the sun don’t shine”

         I slammed down the receiver and returned to the rest of my jobs for the day.

         The morning was the usual rush to work, only today had an air of anticipation while I thought of waiting at the office for Ms. West phone call.  I pulled up to the security gate in the usual fashion, waived my badge at the guard and proceeded thru the gate. In a split second I was surrounded by four security vehicles, asked to step out of the car and then whisked away at top speed to the central security office. There I was searched for weapons and sternly escorted to interrogation room #4. No questions were asked of me and no explanations were offered as to why I was there. Minutes seemed to drag into hours and finally a rather young but mature looking woman entered the room. “Hi Mr. Light, I’m Ms. West and we talked on the phone yesterday.” I was floored. Still wondering why she was there and what connection my present situation had to do with all of this I asked that fatal question. What are you doing here? And why are we “under arrest?” Ms. West just smiled the biggest smile I’ve ever seen and said “Oh, these boys always get excited when I show them this.” And at that point she flips open a FBI badge and ID card.

  Ms. West presented the overall picture of how things worked. Unknown to me (and most of the general populace) the FDA and USDA have FBI agents assigned to various offices to monitor calls in case there is a terrorist attack or radical group who have designs to poison or contaminate the food supply. My call had fit right into that category. Of course she neglected to tell me this until she had checked me out and found I was legit and not someone trying “to pull a prank” as she said. Unfortunately I neglected to tell her that I worked on the B1 project and with Top Secret classified materials, so when security heard the FBI was coming to town they must’ve freaked because Ms. West wouldn’t tell them for what. I can see it now, the CEO of Emerson Electric getting briefed that it wasn’t a security breach but over a can of chili! He must still laugh about it now and then I’m sure.

  Ms. West wrote down my story and took the evidence, thanked me for not going overboard with the press and assured me she would contact me when her investigation was done. She then walked me out and told the security folks everything was alright as they lined the hallway, handcuffs in hand just waiting for the order to arrest me. Ms. West look must’ve chilled them because they backed off quickly with a quick glance from her and never bothered me again. Of course, when I returned to the office all the supervisors pounced on me for the story because they heard I had been arrested.  After telling them the whole ordeal and how security looked they laughed and we all continued with our day. I’m sure though there was a silent sigh of relief from my supervisor that all went well because a breach in security with classified material would’ve most likely cost him his job.

  Two weeks went by when a call came in from Ms. West. She had gone to the Hormel plant in Minneapolis, Minnesota to see how they handled the chili. I’m sure they had the same reaction as I did when she walked in flashing an FBI badge. As it turns out they cook a batch of chili in a two ton pot. The pot takes exactly 5 pounds of several spices at a time and these spices are weighed into paper bags which are then stapled shut until they are ready to be added to the chili. When the time comes to add spice they literally stand over the pot and tear open the bags to dump them in. Well, of course the staples fall into the chili and get canned when the pot is done. I just happened to be the lucky one to get the “bottom of the pot”, staples and all. When Ms. West witnessed this (she stood right there when they did it) she of course freaked at what they did without thought or care. She had them shut down for the week while they pulled product, opened and checked cans to make sure no staples had been shipped in any. She then sat down with the managers (and I’m sure threatened to jail them for sending out tainted food) and had them develop a better plan for adding spice to their chili.  Turns out the spice suppliers were not only happy to send the spice in 5 pound bags, but they would be cloth bags as well which could be reused! This not only solved the staple problem but saved the company money and time as well as they no longer needed to supply bags, staples and labor to make the chili. Ms. West then went back a week later to make sure they had adhered to the new practice and was glad to call me to report all was well now. She thanked me for my service and for not going overboard for a correctable problem.

Did I get a call from Hormel?
Or a check, for saving the company money in the long run?
Heck no.
Never did get the coupon either but that’s ok.
To this day I still won’t eat Hormel chili.

Ever wonder what’s in chicken soup?

Rick Light

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