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Worms in burger claim is disputed

Published Nov. 28, 2006

You've heard of the worm in the apple. But the worm in the hamburger?

Here's the story:

On March 20, Murielle Glockson got really sick.

She said her fever spiked to nearly 104 degrees. She went to the emergency room and was admitted to the hospital for more than a week. She racked up more than $36,000 in medical bills while receiving treatment for a bacteria infection that threatened her kidneys and liver.

So what made her so ill?

That afternoon, Glockson, 70, a retiree from Largo, ate a McDonald's hamburger infected with "little green worms," she said.

Her husband, Henry, photographed the burger and one of the caterpillar-like worms, then brought the burger back to the restaurant, 5464 66th St. N. A manager took the hamburger back and offered Glockson a free one. She refused.

Hours later, Glockson said, she was violently ill. She was vomiting and suffering from head and stomach pains. That's when her daughter took her to the hospital.

"I thought I was a goner," Glockson said.

Earlier this month, Glockson and her husband filed a lawsuit against McDonald's, claiming the burger made her sick.

Glockson's lawyer, Charles Ehrlich, acknowledged that he can't prove that Glockson ate a worm, or even part of one. She found only the one worm in the burger and it was alive, intact and wiggling.

Glockson, who said she ate nearly all the burger before her husband saw that worm dangling from her mouth, thinks other worms were in the burger and that she ate them.

How else is there to explain how she became so ill? What are the chances, she says, that something else made her sick the very day she found a worm in her burger?

But McDonald's says there is no proof the burger caused Glockson's sickness. And some experts say they have doubts about that as well.

"We caution anyone from jumping to conclusions," Beth Plotkin, marketing manager for McDonald's Restaurants of Florida, said in a statement. "We have absolutely no reason to believe this claim has anything to do with McDonald's."

E. coli, worms unlikely

Glockson was diagnosed at the hospital with a bacterial infection that was related somehow to E. coli, though it's unclear just how. She told doctors about the hamburger, but she said they wouldn't say for sure that it was the cause of her sickness.

"They wouldn't commit themselves," she said. "But I know myself. This thing with the hamburger just aggravated my stomach."

Experts say it's unlikely that the same strain of E. coli that kills as many as 60 people per year in the United States and recently was found in California spinach was in Glockson's burger.

There are hundreds of kinds of E. coli, most of which are harmless. The strain found in the spinach is the one most often associated with sickness and death.

If a hospital finds that form of E. coli, it must inform the Pinellas County Health Department, which then would launch an investigation of where the E. coli originated, which could end in a shutdown of a restaurant.

But no one made such a report to the Health Department in March, said spokeswoman Jeannine Mallory.

People get an E. coli infection, generally, if they eat undercooked meat that has been infected with fecal matter. There's no way they could get it from a worm, said Dr. Thomas Klein, a professor of microbiology and immunology at the University of South Florida.

"There is no scientific connection between green worms and getting an E. coli infection," Klein said. "Those two things don't fit."

Probably a caterpillar

Klein said maggots could get into meat if it were rotting, but maggots are white, not green. And if the meat were rotting, it would have been so putrid that Glockson would have balked at smelling it, much less eating it.

(For her part, Glockson said she was quite hungry that afternoon and ate the hamburger rapidly).

An insect expert who looked at the photo of the green creature for the St. Petersburg Times said it's likely not a worm at all, but a caterpillar of a giant swallowtail butterfly, which tend to feed in citrus trees.

"It kind of looks like some of the giant swallowtails, which generally aren't known as toxic," said Dr. Jerry Butler, professor emeritus of medical veterinarian entomology at the University of Florida.

Butler said someone who ate the caterpillar probably would not become ill.

McDonald's also had a doctor examine Glockson's medical records.

"The claimant's medical condition has absolutely nothing to do with the consumption of food, but rather is related to prior underlying medical conditions that have nothing to do with McDonald's," Dr. Allen Sklaver, board-certified in infectious disease medicine and an associate professor at the University of Miami School of Medicine, wrote in an e-mail to the Times.

Glockson said she has liver problems that at one time landed her on a transplant list. The problems are from a previous case of hepatitis. Doctors told her the sickness in March put her liver at more risk, she said.

Nobody's perfect

But if it wasn't the burger that got her sick, what was it? Glockson said she only had a bowl of cereal that day before she visited her doctor for a check-up.

Glockson said she did not make up the story and did not plant the worm.

"I don't go out carrying the worms or anything," she said. "That would be a stupid story. Not the way that I got sick. Because, believe me, I was real sick."

In full disclosure, neither Glockson nor the McDonald's where she got the burger have unblemished pasts.

Glockson was charged eight times with counts of shoplifting and fraud from 1964 to 1979, though records show no criminal record since then.

The restaurant, meanwhile, hasn't done so well during state inspections. In September, inspectors found 10 violations, including eight deemed critical. These included live flies in the kitchen, soil residue in storage containers and food held at improper temperatures.

A year ago, inspectors found five violations, two of them critical. The restaurant also was found to have an expired license in April.

Ehrlich said the Glocksons aren't interested in gouging McDonald's out of millions of dollars. They want enough money to cover the hospital bills and pain and suffering. Mrs. Glockson said she felt ill for weeks, which also ruined a trip she took to London about a month after the incident.

"These people are not greedy. They aren't trying to break the bank," Ehrlich said.

Ehrlich said he offered to settle the case for a figure less than $150,000, but McDonald's rejected the offer.

"Right now, I'm still having problems even thinking about hamburgers," Glockson said. "I can't even pass a McDonald's without getting sick. Just talking about it, I get a stomach ache."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.