(WARNING: contains more than one description of something really disgusting.)

If your appetite for tabloid news hasn't been sated by the adventures of the runaway bride, here's another saga. No, not the hoax in California, where a Las Vegas woman claimed she had found part of a human finger in a cup of Wendy's chili in San José, California; this is the real thing, and it happened in Wilmington, N.C.

One Clarence Stowers purchased a pint of chocolate custard at Kohl's Frozen Custard and Jumbo Burgers. Eating the custard at home, he noticed a chunk that he assumed was candy, put it in his mouth, and sucked the custard off. It was only when he went to the kitchen to wash the object off that he realized it was a human finger and, in the words of the Wilmington Star-News, "began screaming."


The finger belonged to a management trainee who, just as Stowers was ordering his custard in the drive-through, was cleaning the custard machine when the machine's blades sliced off his digit. He ran to get the manager, leaving the machine on; in the meantime the drive-through employee, not knowing what had happened, packed a pint of custard containing the unfortunate man's finger and sold it to Stowers.

After he finished screaming, Stowers returned to the restaurant to complain. When employees asked him to return the finger so it could be reattached, he refused and threatened to sue. So, while I don't know the current whereabouts of the finger in question, apparently the poor trainee has suffered a permanent amputation.

Okay, I do have a serious point to make beyond the grossout factor (but did I mention the guy sucked ice cream off a severed finger?). It turns out that another employee's finger had been sliced off by the same machine last July, but for some reason the N.C. Department of Labor concluded the restaurant was not to blame, and it seems that nothing was done about the machine either.

Would it be a stretch to point out that Wilmington (and North Carolina in general) seems to have longstanding issues with workplace safety? Our state is, of course, a "right to work" state; Wilmington, in particular, has built up a considerable film and television industry by enticing production companies away from southern California with cheap, non-union labor. Infamously, Brandon Lee (Bruce Lee's son) was probably a victim of cutting corners, as he died filming The Crow because a prop gun was handled improperly by exhausted workers at the end of a long shift, and a metal piece was accidentally left in the chamber. The gun was supposed to fire blanks, but when the trigger was pulled the piece shot out like a bullet and killed Lee.

To my knowledge, nobody else has been killed making movies or TV shows in North Carolina. But if regulators can't keep a custard-making machine safe, you wonder how well they're doing in the normally more dangerous poultry or pork industries, for example.

Take the Smithfield Packing Co. plant in Bladen County, a pork slaughterhouse, which this March underwent only its second inspection in 13 years. According to the AP, workplace safety is in terrible shape in North Carolina, due to lax regulations and a lack of inspectors:

By law, three or more employees must be hurt in an accident, or a worker must die, before the state is notified. That means tens of thousands of injuries every year might never be recorded.

And while most companies provide a safe work environment for their employees, few ever see a state inspector on their property to confirm it.

The Labor Department's 110 inspectors reach fewer than 6,000 of North Carolina's 230,000 workplaces every year.
And when ammonia gas was accidentally released at the House of Raeford poultry plant in Rose Hill, N.C. (north of Wilmington), the Star-News editorialized:

At least this time, nobody died - not that the N.C. Department of Labor would have minded all that much.

After chlorine gas killed one of the poultry plant's workers last year, the state Department of Labor found 13 safety violations, 10 called "serious," but only fined the company $3,500. A department spokesman called House of Raeford a good corporate citizen that is "willing to correct and work and improve."

That sympathetic attitude from the government agency that's supposed to enforce workplace safety did little to motivate the company to keep a close watch on equipment that might hurt somebody.
Returning to the severed finger (you didn't think I'd forgotten about that, did you?): It's a little troubling that the only thing Department of Labor inspectors did about the hand-mangling custard machine after it had claimed its second victim was make sure to clean out all the contaminated product (although an investigation continues). Does that it mean it will continue to be used? Can't somebody do something? Fix it? Replace it? Or at least unplug the damn thing?