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    Woman says burger has put her life on hold

    She ate a McDonald's cheeseburger possibly contaminated by human blood. Now she may sue, and awaits a clean bill of health.

    By CHRIS TISCH

    © St. Petersburg Times, published May 13, 2001


    LARGO -- After unwrapping her first McDonald's cheeseburger, Jackie Wollenberg noticed a brownish-red stain on the bottom of the bun. Thinking it was juice from the beef, she tore that part of the bread away and finished the burger.

    When Wollenberg unwrapped her second cheeseburger from its yellow paper, she saw what appeared to be a bloody fingerprint on the wrapper. Then she looked at the bun and saw two drops of something that looked like blood on the top.

    Horrified, she went to the counter of the West Bay Boulevard restaurant and asked whether an employee had recently been cut. A young man with a bandaged hand who identified himself as a manager approached, she said.

    She remembers him saying: "I did. Why?"

    Wollenberg told him she ate a burger that possibly had blood on it, then showed him the second burger that had blood on top.

    Wollenberg said the manager then told her: "I just had a blood test last week, and I'm clean."

    The statement made her worry even more. Why did he get a blood test in the first place?

    "I was like, this is disgusting. This is a little bit more than give me another meal and I'm on my merry way," she said. "He asked me if I wanted more burgers and I said "No, I don't want any more burgers. I want the number for corporate.' "

    Since that day -- March 4 -- Wollenberg has tried to get McDonald's to test that manager's blood. Fearing she ate food tainted by his blood, she wants to know whether he has a disease, such as hepatitis or HIV.

    But McDonald's first stalled, then refused, claiming that testing the manager would violate his privacy.

    Stu Brown, owner and operator of the McDonald's restaurant where Wollenberg got the bloody burger, would not speak with a reporter, but he did offer two written statements.

    The first one reads: "As a 12-year Owner/Operator, I take the concerns of my customers very seriously. Cleanliness and safety are top priorities in my restaurants. I am working to address the customer's concerns. This is still a pending matter."

    In a second statement, sent Thursday, Brown wrote: "We are doing our best to work with the customer's attorney to get the facts and to try to resolve this in the fairest way. We understand the customer has been tested. This isolated incident caused no illness or injury to anyone. Nevertheless, we are mindful of all of our customer's concerns and we are trying to resolve this matter with all parties involved."

    Wollenberg said McDonald's, which last year reported revenue of $40-billion, has offered to pay for her to get blood tests, though she describes the response as slow and uncaring.

    For instance, she says, McDonald's at times went days without returning her calls and didn't offer to pay for her blood tests until five weeks after she possibly ingested the blood.

    "I really do want to be understanding," she said. "But this is going to put my life on hold for four months. It really makes you nervous."

    The handling adjuster in charge of Wollenberg's complaint also refused to speak to a reporter, referring questions to the company's media department, which referred all questions to Brown.

    McDonald's has about 28,000 restaurants in 120 countries.

    Wollenberg said McDonald's officials told her the manager who cut himself does not regularly work at the West Bay Boulevard store. McDonald's officials would not identify him.

    Wollenberg, 37, wonders why she -- and not the manager -- has to sit in waiting rooms to get blood tests. She won't be cleared of all potential diseases for several months.

    Her husband, Hans, also is concerned. The couple has two daughters, ages 8 and 5.

    "This whole thing just gets under my skin," he said. "Just the fact that they haven't done anything about this kid (the manager) just bothers me. As much as it's bothering her, it's bothering me.

    "They haven't done anything to console her," he added. "They need to find this kid and have him tested. That's just bad business. I just don't understand McDonald's at all. They've got trillions of dollars."

    A man from McDonald's called Wollenberg the morning after the incident and apologized, offering to make up for what happened. But Wollenberg said he wasn't specific.

    "He just said it would be more than two cheeseburgers," Wollenberg said. "Which could be three cheeseburgers."

    The man told her someone would be getting back to her within 72 hours. She waited one day, then two, then three.

    Finally, a claims adjuster from McDonald's called. He asked what she wanted McDonald's to do for her.

    "I wanted them to pay for my blood test, and I wanted this man tested," she said. "And he said it takes 30 to 90 days to process the claim and I would be hearing from them. He said go to your doctor, pay for the bills, then we'll reimburse you.

    "I didn't mention money at all. I never have."

    Frantic, she called her doctor, who told her to call the health department. She was told to wait a week before getting tested.

    Wollenberg started to fret. She felt uncomfortable getting too close to her husband and her children because she didn't know what diseases the blood might hold. Her doctor prescribed medication to calm her.

    After a week, she went to the health department, where she sat in a waiting room for two and a half hours waiting to receive a test for sexually transmitted diseases. Her 5-year-old daughter was with her. People in the waiting room looked at her. Then she had to answer personal questions about her sex life.

    "It was really uncomfortable," she said.

    The next morning, she went to her doctor's office for more tests.

    After all the tests, she was told it would be a week before hepatitis tests came back and about a month before HIV results came back.

    A week later, the hepatitis tests came back negative. But she had not heard from the adjuster about the manager's blood test. She called.

    "And he told me, as of yet, the guy has not returned his calls and he had made a note to call him back," Wollenberg said.

    Wollenberg called him back several times during the ensuing days to check on the status of the manager's tests. She left messages, she said, but no one called her back.

    On April 9, Wollenberg's HIV test came back. To her relief, it was negative. But she has to be tested again after three months to be certain, meaning she doesn't know right now whether she's clear of the disease.

    Three days later, Wollenberg said McDonald's liability officials called her and told her the manager would not be tested because it would violate his privacy rights, though they offered to get her in touch with an infectious-disease doctor.

    She was outraged.

    "This isn't something I would have wanted to go through, especially over a cheeseburger," she said.

    Wollenberg says she initially didn't think about a lawsuit and isn't sue-happy. But she recently hired a lawyer and now is considering suing.

    She said a lawsuit would not necessarily be because of the incident, but because McDonald's has been uncaring and unwilling to test the manager -- the only thing that would bring her true peace of mind.

    "I would have let this go if they had done the right thing. I don't want $4.5-million. I'm not that type of person," she said. "But this little incident is going to disrupt me, my husband and my kids for four or five months, if not longer. It's not a monetary thing; it's a right from wrong thing."

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