Kendra Bull, a 20-year-old employee of a McDonald’s in Union City, Georgia, was arrested Friday and now faces criminal charges for allegedly putting too much salt on a police officer’s hamburger.
After using the drive-through, Officer Wendell Adams returned to the restaurant and told the manager that the burger had made him sick. Bull admitted that she had accidentally spilled salt on some hamburger meat earlier, and said she told a supervisor and a co-worker, who "tried to thump the salt off" so the meat wouldn’t be wasted. But Officer Adams had heard enough. He arrested Bull, who was charged with premeditated overseasoning — okay, misdemeanor reckless conduct — and spent the night in jail.
Bull said that she did not intentionally serve the salty burger to a police officer (good thing, since that probably violates the PATRIOT Act), and can’t even see the drive-through window from her work area. But according to a city spokesman, Bull was charged with a crime because she served the hamburger "without regards to the well-being of anyone who might consume it." Bull told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she didn’t think the meat could have been salty enough to make anyone sick, partly because on her break she had eaten a burger made with it herself before Officer Adams showed up. She also wondered why he had eaten the burger if it was really that salty.
She makes a very good point here. For this to be a criminal act, presumably there had to be some realistic chance of harm to someone’s "well-being." And unless Officer Adams is worried about developing hypertension later in life, the harm would have to be salt poisoning. Though there are many cases of this involving young children or nursing-home patients (who can become dehydrated), it turns out to be extremely rare otherwise, precisely because it is so difficult to consume enough salt to seriously hurt you without your body rejecting it (a process that experts call "barfing"). That is true even though your sodium levels can go up dangerously from as little as a tablespoon or two of salt.
In fact, a 2004 study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine (my research staff thinks it’s being paid overtime, apparently) found so few cases of hypernatremia (and also paid by word length) in normal, healthy adults, the study actually concluded that "mental or emotional disorders are crucial for voluntary ingestion of toxic amounts of salt." The authors located 17 reported cases of "severe hypernatremia secondary to oral administration of sodium." These included:
- A mentally-disabled woman who ate "four cups of jam supplemented with three to four heaping tablespoons of salt,"
- Three cases in which a woman was convinced or forced to drink extremely salty water as part of an exorcism,
- A fisherman who swallowed a "considerable amount" of seawater after his boat was sunk by a hurricane, and
- Four suicides, including one in which a Japanese woman drank an entire one-liter bottle of soy sauce.
None of the reported cases involved policemen.
Since almost all such poisonings resulted from unique circumstances generally involving a mental or emotional disorder (or an exorcism), the study concluded that "oral administration of sodium is an extremely uncommon cause of [salt poisoning], as healthy adults resist the taste of excess amounts of salt and do not ingest more than small quantities of salty substances." So, had there been enough salt on this burger to suggest it was an intentional act or one reckless enough to put someone’s well-being at risk, Officer Adams would likely not have eaten it.
Now that science has exonerated Kendra Bull, I hope the charges will be dropped.
Link: Yahoo! News
Link: Y. Ofran, et al., Fatal Voluntary Salt Intake Resulting in the Highest Ever Documented Sodium Plasma Level in Adults, 256 J. Int. Med. 525-28 (Dec. 2004).
Link: Yamazaki, et al., A Case of Salt Poisoning from Drinking a Large Quantity of Soy Sauce, 2 Legal Med. 84-87 (2000).