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7 Foreign Objects Found in Food

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As you get older, the prospect of finding something unexpected inside of food or drink loses its appeal. Maybe that's because as products get more mature (from Happy Meals to Big Macs), so too do the surprises waiting inside (from plastic rat to actual rat). But consumers often don't get a choice. If a manufacturer, fry cook or the gods of chance want to leave a foreign object in your soup, a foreign object is what you shall get.

1. Frog-Flavored Soda (that tastes like rodents)

Take, for example, Fred Denegri, a Florida man who thought he'd found a rodent inside his can of Diet Pepsi. It was a normal night at Fred and Amy Denegri's backyard tiki bar. A self-described Diet Pepsi addict, Fred popped a can and guzzled like he had done so many times before. But the taste running across his tongue was decidedly more rodent than usual. After tipping the can and shaking, a tail sprang forth and the Denegris were officially grossed out.

The FDA investigated the incident and determined the odd taste was not coming from a mouse, but rather a decomposing frog or toad. Pepsi is still pretty confident that it isn't their fault. "It is virtually impossible for this type of thing to happen in a production environment," said Pepsi spokesman Jeff Dahncke. Pepsi lovers that they are, Fred and Amy haven't switched to Coke but they have started buying bottles, and drinking from glasses.

2. Mouse-Flavored Bread

Finding a mouse or frog in your soda is traumatizing, but finding one in your malt loaf? Well, maybe that's not quite as bad. Just ask the Ballymoney, Ireland, man who purchased a loaf from his local supermarket. He was lucky enough to see the mouse before biting into it. The bakery that produced the loaf called shenanigans, alleging an act of sabotage, but a local magistrate sided with the customer and levied a £1,000 fine on the bakery.

3. Lizard-Flavored Grub

It's not surprising that mice make frequent appearances in food, but they're not the only members of the animal kingdom showing up where they don't belong. Take the four-inch lizard that was served in a salad at an Applebee's in Bloomington, IL. The poor little guy, who was completely intact, prompted an investigation by the restaurant and the local health department. The determination? "This was just an extraordinary circumstance," said Miles McMillin, Applebee's senior manager of communications.

Chasity Erbaugh found three-quarters of a frog in a bag of Great Value frozen green beans. Erbaugh bought the bag from Wal-Mart, which forced the manufacturer to investigate. For her part, Erbaugh maintained a sense of humor. "They didn't even give me the frog legs with it," she said.

4. Finger-Flavored Custard

After returning home from a dessert run to Kohl's Frozen Custard in North Carolina in 2005, Clarence Stowers found a piece of human in his frosty treat. Unfortunately, he didn't realize there was a severed finger in his custard until after biting down on it. But don't feel sorry for Stowers, who refused to return the finger to doctors, leaving the newly fingerless Brandon Fizer only able to count to nine. Instead, Stowers hung on to the finger and sued Kohl's for psychological trauma and post-traumatic stress. 

And let's not forget Anna Ayala, who planted a finger in her own Wendy's chili and attempted to sue the restaurant. Her creative scheme landed her and her husband, who obtained the finger chunk from a friend, in prison.

5. Latex-Flavored Dinner

When Philip Hodousek began eating the cheese off the top of his French onion soup from Claim Jumper Restaurant in Mission Viejo, California, he thought the cheese was a little rubbery. Turns out it was latex-y; the cheese wasn't cheese, but a condom. When Hodousek politely pointed this fact out to the restaurant's manager, he was told it was in fact a rubber glove. Hodousek's stomach disagreed as he excused himself to vomit. Once composed, he settled on suing the restaurant for "general damages, specific damages for medical services, medication, drugs, psychological treatment, loss of earnings, and the cost of filing the lawsuit."

Van Miguel Hartless took the same approach after finding a prophylactic atop his Southwestern Whopper. A student at Green Mountain College, Hartless sued, claiming he had suffered from "vomiting, nightmares and emotional distress." 

6. Cell Phone-Flavored Chips

When Emma Schweiger of Janesville, Wisconsin, sat down for a crunchy snack in 2009, she encountered perhaps the most bizarre shaped chip imaginable. It had a screen, buttons and looked just like a silver Nokia cell phone. Which is exactly what it was. Schweiger purchased the bag of Clancy's Ripple Potato Chips from a local Aldi, which offered her a free bag of chips for her trouble. She turned them down. "You kind of don't want chips for a while" after something like that, she said. But once she does, "they will be dumped in the bowl."

7. Metal-Flavored Everything

Perhaps Julisa Caba, a 25-year-old mom from Queens, New York, should start cutting up her McDonald's apple pies before eating them. That would save her the horror of biting into a screw lodged inside of the warm, gooey dessert. "I was like, 'What the heck is this?'" she said. "I started freaking out." The McDonald's where she purchased the pie received a full health inspection. "You never believe something like this when you hear about it," she said. "But then it happens to you."

It happened to James Fetters, too. The Florida man bit down on to a two-inch bolt that swam among the bacon and chives in his Outback Steakhouse potato soup and was left with a chipped front tooth. Fetters tracked down the Outback manager, who offered to send him home with his dinner for free. Fetters insisted the restaurant pay to fix his tooth instead, a promise that the company eventually made.

But when it comes to finding metal objects in food, no one can top 17-year-old Ashley Barry, who sat down with a frozen meal that her doting mother purchased for her and discovered a large metal clamp beneath the plastic wrap. The local Aldi that sold the Fit and Active frozen meal pulled the others from its shelves and delivered Barry and her mother two free bags of groceries—no large pieces of metal included.

This story originally appeared in 2009.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]