Earlier this month a Los Angeles man posted a photo and video of what he claimed was a rat that he found in his KFC order. A photo of the piece of meat, which resembles a clump of meat with a thin tail-like strip of fried breading, was posted to Facebook by its finder, Devorise Dixon, and the image went viral with warnings about contaminated foods.
Dixon also claimed, rather improbably, that he brought it to the attention of the manager who then admitted it was indeed a rat. Dixon refused to answer questions from KFC about it but eventually agreed to have the piece analysed. Earlier this week media reports went out that “A third-party independent lab tested the suspicious meal and determined it was undoubtedly a piece of hand-breaded chicken — an assertion KFC stood firm on.”
Fast food outlets and packaged foods have long been the subject of rumours and urban legends, but this latest legend is different and can be explained by psychology. There are two components to this mistake (or hoax, depending on who you believe); one is psychological and the other is cultural.
So where did the illusion of a rat-shaped chicken come from? Our expectations influence our perceptions, and sometimes we see what we want to see (or fear we might see). Prepared meat such as beef or chicken is sometimes stringy, and unlike uniform, pre-formed chicken bits (sold, for example, by McDonald’s under their Chicken McNuggets brand), the KFC chain uses whole cuts of chicken which vary somewhat in size, weight, colour, and shape.
The seasoned coating adds another element of variety and can further affect the final texture and shape. The process of seasoning and frying adds bulk to what may otherwise be an unnoticed pencil-thin piece of meat that became partially separated from the same piece of meat. In the photo the “tail” closely conforms to the contours of the “body,” strongly indicating that it was not a separate body part but simply an errant bit that got separated from the rest in the process of frying.