Rumor Claims Diner Caught Syphilis at Olive Garden Restaurant

Olive Garden restaurant entrance

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A viral message claims a female diner contracted syphilis after eating a meal contaminated with "three different types of semen" at an Olive Garden restaurant in West Des Moines, Iowa.

Description: Urban legend
Circulating since: 2007 (this version)
Status: False

Email contributed by a reader, July 12, 2007:

RE: WDM Olive Garden
Angie sent this email to me!!!!!!!!! It was her co-worker!
A girl I work with and her friend went to Olive Garden this weekend; I believe Thursday or Friday night. Amber’s friend did not get what she ordered correctly so she sent the food back. Sunday she woke up and had red bumps all over inside her mouth. She went to the doctor and after many questions and food allergy tests she brought in what she had ate (she had left over’s at home) the doctor tested it. The food tested positive for three different types of semen, Amber’s friend had Syphilis in her mouth from the food at Olive Garden here in WDSM...
Anyone up for dinner this weekend, I know a great place!

Analysis: Urban legends about restaurant food contamination abound. A favorite sub-motif is the intentional adulteration of food items with bodily fluids.

In the present case the adulterant is alleged to be "three different types of semen" (meaning, presumably, the semen of three different men), and the location an Olive Garden restaurant in West Des Moines, Iowa. We are told that the female victim developed sores in her mouth identified by doctors as symptoms of an STD (sexually transmitted disease), namely syphilis. The source of these allegations is a forwarded email circulating since July 2007.

Health officials and the restaurant's managers say no such incident took place. According to the Iowa Department of Public Health and Darden Restaurants, Inc. (owner of the Olive Garden chain), the West Des Moines restaurant's sanitation record is spotless, and the email tale has zero basis in fact. "You could just look at it and say, 'Gee, I think some teenager sat around and tried to make up the grossest story they could make up and this is what they came up with,'" state epidemiologist Patricia Quinlisk told KCCI-TV News in Des Moines. She advises recipients of the message to discard it.

Olive Garden Rumor Dates Back to 1999

Interestingly enough, while this exceptionally nasty rumor may be new to Iowa, it has plagued Olive Garden restaurants across the U.S. for the better part of a decade. Far from lending credence to the claims, however, the fact that the same narrative has been repeated again and again in different locations with only slight variations in the details identifies it as a textbook example of an urban legend.

The following variant was contributed by a reader in San Francisco in February 1999. Note that the victim is again female and the restaurant is Olive Garden, but the STD she supposedly contracted is herpes, not syphilis.

Date: Tue, 9 Feb 1999

A couple of days ago my friend Karen was telling me that her sisters friend got herpes in her throat. Apparently she ordered Fettuccine Alfredo, after sending it back to the kitchen several times because it was cold, she took it home for left overs. The next day she had a really bad sore throat. She went to the doctor and that's when she found out. She then recounted what she had ingested the day before, she brought her left overs from The Olive Garden to her doctor to test. Her doctor told her that they had found SEMEN in her fettuccine alfredo!!!!!!!!!!!!!
This happened at the Olive Garden here in San Francisco at Stonestown Galleria!!!!

And this version was contributed by a Topeka, Kansas reader in August 2001:

Date: Aug 24 2001
Subject: Olive Garden

A friend of my wife went to the Olive Garden with her church group about two weeks ago and ordered alfredo. The meal came out cold and she had the meal sent back. It came back out cold again, she asked them to heat it up again. By the time she got it warm, everyone else was done eating, so she told the waiter to just box the meal and she would take it home. She heated the meal up and ate part of it. Over the next three days she had sores break out in her mouth and on her tongue. The DR told her that she had Herpes. After she convinced the DR that there was no way that she could have gotten them there he eventually had her run down her last five days and he found out about the food. She brought the food in and it was tested. There was semen on the food. Currently her attorney is working with authorities as well as preparing a law suit, but there is suppose to be something coming out very soon about it.
If you go to eat there you might ask to have your semen on the side.

Why Is the Focus on Olive Garden?

While Olive Garden has become the main lightning rod for instances of the semen-contaminated food legend in recent years, this hasn't always been the case. It shouldn't be taken as a sign that the chain is guilty of anything more insidious than being extremely popular and well-known throughout the country. Among the other specimens of the tale are variants set in pizzerias, hamburger joints, Mexican restaurants, and Chinese restaurants. Olive Garden has been singled out due to a phenomenon folklorists call the "Goliath Effect"—a fancy way of saying that over time, disparaging rumors tend to become focused on the largest and best-known businesses in their market sector. The reason is that the bigger the company (or the bigger we perceive it to be), the more we are inclined to distrust it.

Let's face it, most of us live busy lives and are dining out more often, which means we're putting our health in the hands of strangers more than ever before. And though we may not speak of it much, we have serious qualms about this—qualms which find expression in urban legends about horrible things being done to our food. The stories are usually false, thank goodness, but our misgivings are all too real.