A woman in south-central Texas is suing Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, claiming the restaurant’s red beans and rice contained flesh-eating New World screwworms that have ravaged her body over the past two years.
Karen Goode of San Antonio argued in a 10-page lawsuit filed last week that Popeyes and its franchisee Z&H Foods are responsible for feeding her food infested with the parasite in 2015. She said the bugs entered her digestive tract and laid eggs, which embedded into the interior lining of her small intestine, then hatched and started eating Goode “from the inside out.”
But scientists say such a scenario is not possible.
“Nothing about this, biologically, is sound,” Gwen Pearson, educational outreach coordinator for the Purdue Department of Entomology, told The Washington Post.
Goode is seeking at least $1 million in damages for her medical expenses, pain and suffering, mental anguish and loss of enjoyment of life, among other things.
In an interview Monday, Goode’s attorney, Patrick Stolmeier, called it a “pretty horrible situation,” saying Goode has been losing “massive amounts of blood and tissue” as the screwworms have been “eating themselves out of her body.” “She’s just hoping she can heal and get healthy,” he added.
Popeyes said in a statement it was aware of Goode’s claims and that the franchisee has been working with her for more than a year to “to address her concerns,” even though her claims are claims “unfounded and false.”
“We don’t discuss details of litigation, but we can tell you that we understand that, while investigating this matter, the franchisee has worked with outside parties who have found the claims to be unfounded and false,” Popeyes spokeswoman Renee Kopkowski said in a statement. “We can also assure you that the side dishes at this local Popeyes and all Popeyes restaurants have a strict standard and are cooked and maintained at 165 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature that would make it impossible for bacteria or other foreign matter to survive the cooking process.”
“Popeyes makes food safety a top priority,” the statement read, “and we put the safety and welfare of our guests first, so we will continue to investigate this matter.”
Pearson, the entomologist at Purdue University, said Goode’s argument makes no sense.
Pearson said screwworms live inside live animal tissue, not in plant tissue. If, by some chance, there were screwworms in the meal, she said, cooking them would have killed them. And if, by some chance, the woman had ingested live ones, she added, stomach acid would have finished them off. Pearson said screwworms cannot live (in red beans and rice, or inside a small intestine) because there is no oxygen source.
“There are no insects that you could eat alive that would then set up shop in your body,” she said.
However, she added, non-insect parasites, such as tapeworms, could be ingested in a similar way.
Female New World screwworms lay their eggs in open wounds of warm-blooded animals and humans and, when the eggs hatch, the larvae infest and feed on the host, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Screwworms were eradicated in the United States several decades ago. Then last year, the parasite was found in deer from National Key Deer Refuge in Big Pine Key, Fla., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
As The Washington Post’s Ben Guarino reported:
The New World screwworms infesting the Florida deer were not supposed to be in the United States. In the 1950s, the USDA embarked on an ambitious project to rid the country of the agricultural pest. Its plan was a bit closer to “kill it with fire” than “shoo, fly” — with gamma radiation and X-rays supplying the fire.
The government raised young screwworms by the millions, and bombarded the larvae with gamma and X-rays. Thus rendered infertile, the adult flies were released en masse across the Southeast and West. By the end of the 1950s, a “fly factory” in Sebring, Fla., churned out 50 million sterile flies a week. Unable to find fecund mates, the U.S. screwworm population crashed, first in pockets and then across the country.
By the end of the 1960s, the fly had vanished from the United States. In each subsequent year, the lack of screwworms has saved the livestock industry $900 million, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture estimate.
The Agriculture Department also set its sights southward, helping eliminate the flies in Jamaica, Mexico and parts of Central America. Panama marks the “buffer zone” between the fly zones in South America and the screwworm-free north, Edward B. Knipling, the son of the entomologist who came up with the birth control plan, told NPR in June.
U.S. infections since the eradication effort have been isolated cases, typically the result of traveling abroad.
Pearson, with Purdue University, said that sometimes people can experience sensations of parasites attacking their bodies even though there is nothing there.
Morgellons is a psychological problem that makes people feel that there are bugs burrowing inside their bodies. According to the Mayo Clinic: “Morgellons disease is an uncommon, unexplained skin disorder characterized by sores, crawling sensations on and under the skin.” It is considered a type of “delusion of parasitosis.”
Pearson said people with the disorder “suffer terribly and they won’t accept a medical answer that’s based in reality.”
Pearson said she is surprised that Goode’s case has made it this far in the legal process.
There’s nothing here that makes sense,” she said, “other than this woman is suffering.”
This story has been updated.