updated 5/4/2005 3:58:57 PM ET 2005-05-04T19:58:57

This time, no one is doubting the claims: A customer really did find part of a worker’s finger in a pint of frozen chocolate custard purchased at a shop in North Carolina.

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Despite the horrifying find — and widespread media coverage of an infamous finger incident at a Wendy’s restaurant in California in March — work place statistics show that the chance of a body part winding up in food is extremely small.

The piece of index finger, which an employee had severed at the first knuckle, was found Sunday by Clarence Stowers in a pint of dessert he purchased from Kohl’s Frozen Custard in the coastal town of Wilmington.

Kohl’s owner Craig Thomas said 23-year-old employee Brandon Fizer tried to catch a bucket of custard he had dropped and accidentally put his finger into a machine that beats the custard mix. As shop workers tried to help Fizer, a drive-thru window attendant unknowingly scooped frozen custard from the bucket containing the finger and served it to Stowers.

The state Department of Labor is investigating to determine whether Kohl’s was in compliance with state workplace safety rules — a probe that likely will take about two weeks.

Stowers did not return repeated calls for comment Tuesday. He has reportedly hired a lawyer and is holding on to the severed finger as evidence in a possible lawsuit.

“I thought it was candy because they put candy in your ice cream or whatever to make it a treat,” he told a Wilmington television station on Sunday. “So I proceeded to put the object in my mouth, got all the ice cream off of it and spit it in my hand.”

After rinsing it off with water, Stowers said he realized what it was and “just started screaming.”

While national statistics show that people do lose fingertips on the job, they rarely do so in situations where they can get into food.

Mark Zak, an economist with the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, said that in 2003 the agency recorded 5,620 nonfatal fingertip amputations in private workplaces that resulted in the loss of at least one day of work. He said only 300 of those occurred at leisure and hospitality workplaces — a category that includes restaurants and ice cream parlors.

No specific statistics are available on how often amputated digits actually end up in the food supply, said Fred Blosser, a spokesman for the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Robert Baldwin, president of Indianapolis-based workplace safety consultants Safety Resources, said Tuesday he has never heard of major problems caused by body parts getting into food, but his major concern would be disease.

“That is the issue to me more than anything,” he said. “Hepatitis B is always the concern in the food industry; that’s why you see all those workers wearing gloves.”

The North Carolina discovery came not long after a Las Vegas woman made headlines around the country with a claim that she found a finger tip in a bowl of chili at a Wendy’s restaurant in San Jose, Calif.

Investigators have called Anna Ayala’s claim a hoax and charged her last month with attempted grand theft related to millions in dollars of financial losses Wendy’s has suffered in northern California since news of her claim broke. It is not known whose finger it was; Ayala denies that it was a hoax.

Last month, a man sued the owner of an Arby’s restaurant in Ohio for $50,000, claiming he found a ¾-inch slice of human skin on his chicken sandwich in June 2004.

For Kohl’s, Sunday’s fingertip amputation was the second time in less than a year that a worker lost a finger on the same frozen custard machine. The worker, William Franklin, was found by investigators to have been negligent in the July 2004 incident, and the state Labor Department cleared the company of wrongdoing.

Franklin, however, contends he was only in his third day on the job and had been given no safety training when he was left alone to work on the machine. He is suing Kohl’s, which he said fired him a short time after the incident, and has made several complaints to the Labor Department about his injury.

“I am outraged now,” Franklin said. “I told them there was going to be another one, but I couldn’t believe it. I had hoped that they would somehow try and prevent that.”

Franklin said his severed finger didn’t end up in any food. He recovered it, but doctors were not able to reattach it.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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