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FDA Found Rat in Can, Kept Quiet : Health: Agency confirms report of rodent in Pepsi container but says no problems were found at bottling plant. Company denies responsibility.

October 19, 1994|SUSAN MARQUEZ OWEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Federal investigators found a decaying rat inside a Diet Pepsi can sold in Orange County, but decided to close the case without issuing warnings to Pepsi-Cola or to the public, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed Wednesday,

An FDA spokeswoman said that it was not known how the rat got in the can and that the July incident seemed to be "isolated."

Investigators inspected the Buena Park Pepsi-Cola bottling operation that produced the soda where the rat was found, but turned up no problems with cleanliness or quality control, FDA spokeswoman Rosario Quintanilla-Vior said.

"We did find the rat in the can," Quintanilla-Vior said. "It was in pieces, but it was there," she said. "But we've got to make sure we have all kinds of evidence before we make a public announcement if it's going to make (the public) worried or cause any kind of flurry."

A Pepsi official Tuesday denied responsibility for the rodent and said the claim may be the latest hoax against the company.

"It's tough for anyone to know how the rat or mouse got into the can, but the FDA gave our plant a clean bill of health," spokeswoman Anne Ward said from Pepsi headquarters in Somers, N.Y.

A 22-year-old woman has filed a lawsuit against Pepsi-Cola Co. and the Albertson's grocery store chain, alleging that she bought and drank from the can of Diet Pepsi that contained a dead rat.

On Tuesday, the woman's attorney released notes from a hospital report where staff members inspected the soda can.

"Family brought in can of Pepsi; I removed the can with a can opener and found what apeared (sic) to be some sort of rhodent (sic) in the bottom of the can. Health Department notified," said the emergency room report from Anaheim General Hospital.

Emergency room employees declined to comment Tuesday and an administrator did not return calls.

The woman, Maria Del Consuelo Lazaro, a visiting schoolteacher from Jalisco, Mexico, filed suit Friday in Orange County Superior Court. She alleged that while visiting family in Buena Park in July, she drank about a third of a 12-ounce can of Diet Pepsi that she had bought at an Albertson's only to spit out some strange matter.

A few hours later, according to her attorney, she went to the emergency ward at Anaheim General Hospital complaining of severe abdominal pains, diarrhea and vomiting.

Staff at the hospital opened the can and discovered a full-grown rat about the size of a fist, said Lazaro's attorney, Daniel Ramirez of Buena Park.

The hospital later sent the can and its contents to the FDA.

A manager at the Albertson's in Buena Park has declined comment on the suit.

*

In an Aug. 4 letter to Lazaro, FDA Laboratory Director John Stamp wrote that the can contained: "44.1 gms. of material which consisted of two rat/mouse fragments and a small quantity of pale transparent liquid. Striated hair fragments (including rat/mouse hairs) were found adhering to the metal can lid--13 on the outer surface and 20 on the inner surface."

Quintanilla-Vior said FDA investigators never were able to contact Lazaro and speak with her directly, which was a factor in their decision to close the case. The FDA spokeswoman added that a language barrier with Lazaro had discouraged investigators.

She said the FDA has received no other similar reports about cans from the Buena Park plant and that the agency has no plans to pursue the case.

Ramirez said Lazaro developed a rash after drinking from the can and a fear of eating that has caused her to lose 30 pounds, and has sought psychological counseling.

The attorney said he will try to prove that the bottling company carelessly disregarded public safety. He said he is skeptical that the bottling company could come up to government standards, as the FDA maintains.

"If they do come up to governmental standards, we have a serious problem," Ramirez said.

Last year, Pepsi-Cola became the target of the largest product-tampering investigation in U.S. history when people from cities as far-flung as San Diego, Williamsport, Pa., and Albion, Mich., claimed to have found needles in Diet Pepsi cans.

Fifty-three of the cases ended in arrests by the FDA for false claims. So far, none has shown Pepsi was at fault, Ward said.

Another woman in New York who claimed she found a rat in a can was recently arrested for making a false report, she said.

"We have to take every call in good faith, but unfortunately, we've had some experience with people who have tried to take advantage," Ward said.

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