There was sweat and there were tears, but there was no blood. I was wincing with empathy while watching a chile-eating contest some years ago in South Los Angeles. Seven men and three women sat behind picnic tables; laid before them was a small bowl filled with some of the spiciest chilies in the world: neon-orange habanero peppers.
It was a mild day, and there was a gentle breeze, but contestants needed towels to wipe the moisture from their brows. Some were seasoned chile-eaters, biting into each pepper — seeds and all — without hesitation. Others cried in pain and grasped their stomachs and throats after a few chews. “No mames,” some who watched whispered under their breath, in part in disbelief, in part to cheer on their friends. Two of the women quietly soldiered on, ignoring their competitors’ cries. As the clock counted down, they were the only ones who hadn’t yet given up. One woman picked the stem off each pepper with a stern but calm look on her face. A few moments later, the other shook her head, and, looking down, threw in the towel with a sigh. The crowd cheered for the winner who was handed a glass of milk to tame the fire in her mouth.
In the age of social and viral media, food-eating contests have become as popular as sporting events, their winners crowned heroes. But in the past week, two people have died while participating in an eating contest. On March 31, Caitlin Nelson, a 21-year-old student at Connecticut’s Sacred Heart University, choked while participating in a pancake-eating contest, according to the CTPost. Officers called to the scene had to physically remove food that had been lodged in her throat.
On April 2, at Voodoo Doughnuts in Denver, Co., a man choked to death while engaged in the company’s popular doughnut-eating contest. The “Tex-Ass” challenge is available at all Voodoo locations and requires that a person eat a half-pound, seven-inch diameter, $4.50 fried yeasted doughnut in 80 seconds. The local medical examiner’s office confirmed that Travis Malouff, who was 42, died of “asphyxia, due to obstruction of the airway,” Eater PDX noted. “Our hearts go out to the Malouff family during this very difficult time,” Voodoo’s owners wrote in a statement. “While this matter is under investigation, we believe it would be inappropriate to comment further.” (Voodoo has since suspended its doughnut challenge.)
Entrants almost always sign a disclaimer when they enter any sort of contest that poses a risk. The contestant is doing the eating — no one shoved that hot dog down their throat, or forced them to eat all of those pancakes. So, then, who is liable when someone dies?
According to Major League Eating, a governing body for official eating contests, America’s penchant for competitive eating officially kicked off in 1916 with Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, which has been held every year since. Both Takeru Kobayashi and Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, two of the world’s most famous competitive eaters, made their names thanks to Nathan’s. Chestnut currently holds the world record for most hot dogs consumed in 12 minutes: 70. July 4, 2017 marks the contest’s 101st year.
History is full of occasions in which competitive overeating was celebrated or admired. A story of a Nordic man competing in an eating feat with a god appears in the Prose Edda, a text from the 13th century. In the 16th century, poet John Taylor documented the story of Nicholas Wood, the Great Eater of Kent, and likely the first known competitive eater. As Atlas Obscura reported, Taylor discovered Wood in Kent, which is now part of present-day England, in the late 1500s. During their first encounter, Wood ate “60 eggs, a good portion of a lamb, and a handful of pies, remaining hungry for more.” Wood would go on to become better known as “the Great Eater,” who Taylor documented as having eaten two dozen rabbits in a single sitting, and 12 loaves of bread soaked in ale on another occasion. (He got so drunk he passed out after the meal.)
Tricks of the Trade
Like competitors in athletics, dance, or any pursuit involving endurance and stamina, competitive eaters train and employ tricks in order to achieve greatness. Kobayashi, who monitors his weight and body fat, is known for the “Kobayashi Shake,” a wiggle he makes while swallowing food which supposedly helps it compactly settle down in his stomach. The ability to moisten food, such as the buns around a hot dog, is among the oldest tricks in the trade; when Kobayashi set his first world record in 2001, his technique involved dunking the buns in a glass of water and then swallowing the soft, wet mass whole.
Randy Santel, a competitive eater with over 400 titles to his name, launched the website Food Challenges in 2014, offering several pages dedicated to strategies, tips, tricks, and training techniques. “The week before I decided to enter [an eating competition for the first time], I had just finished a body transformation as part of a contest sponsored by Men’s Health magazine, which I won,” Santel says. His very first contest involved an 11-pound, 28-inch pizza, which he ate with a friend in under an hour. He won $500, plus the pizza, “and then I was hooked,” Santel says. He’s since competed in nearly 500 food-eating challenges across the globe, winning 477 and eating massive quantities of everything from burritos to ice cream to chicken wings to pho.
Today, Santel is a dietetics student at Missouri State University, with the goal to be the first (and possibly only) dietician who is also a competitive eater. He plans to keep his site active as he shifts into a career in nutrition and dietetics, but notes that his dual pursuits are not as much of a contradiction as they may seem.
“They go hand in hand. The best eaters are fit,” Santel says. “I can eat more when I’m feeling more active and healthy, by focusing on my nutrition and exercising, and letting my body recover between contests.” According to some, a healthy body has the ability to process an onslaught of calories whereas an unfit body and its unfit stomach, heart, lungs, and digestive tract will struggle.
But competitive eating puts incredible stress on the body. “Getting sick is definitely common if your body’s not used to it,” Santel says, referring to a fairly well-known strategy among some competitive eaters. “But for the most part the better eaters digest everything.” Science suggests those who train for eating events tend to not only perform better, but also recover faster. A 2007 University of Pennsylvania study demonstrated the difference in stomach capacity between a trained competitive eater and an average eater. The competitive eater’s stomach stretched far into the abdomen to contain all the food ingested; the average eater’s stomach didn’t stretch at all.
Marc Levine, one of the study’s authors, told Time magazine in 2014 that a successful competitive eater “would practice by eating larger and larger volumes of food,” to the point where “the stomach overcame the peristalsis activity so it was able to accept an unlimited amount of food.” But, Levine speculated to the Wall Street Journal, if a competitive eater carried on with this lifestyle for years, “there was a long-term risk that the stomach could lose its ability to return to normal size, which could cause serious problems.”
Santal, who is 31, is undeterred by potential risks. He works out and says he “maintains healthy blood levels” in between his trips to contests in other cities and countries. On his next three-day trip to San Diego, he’ll compete in a total of four contests before flying back home and resuming his normal diet.
When it comes to potential hazards, choking is the most obvious concern in eating contests. Meat, because of its texture, density, and fat content, is the toughest food to swallow quickly. “I saw a person choke on a piece of steak once, but it wasn’t serious,” Santel says, noting that carbs are generally pretty easy to consume: If there’s a choking concern, eaters will chug water, which softens the food so it can be more easily swallowed.
But accidents happen. Santel remembers biting his finger once in haste, and splicing his thumb while using a knife to cut a piece of meat during a contest. These are apparently common injuries. He says that the real concern is when a contest involves alcohol, as many amateur contests do. One-off, promotional contests can be dangerous, too. Incompetence and inexperience — for organizers and participants — can lead to injury and death.
In 2014, a South Dakota man died during an amateur hot dog eating contest; the local paper noted that the death “happened within minutes.” In this case, a paramedic was not on the scene; contests sanctioned by Major League Eating require EMT presence. “We discourage anyone from doing contests without emergency medical technicians,” George Shea, chair of MLE, told Time in 2014.
In 2016, Santa Fe resident Debra Harbeck was celebrating her daughter’s birthday at a local club, and was drunk when she decided to enter the club’s corn dog-eating contest. In her inebriated state, she swallowed too quickly and began choking. There was no EMT on site, but the Albuquerque Journal reported that onlookers gave Harbeck the Heimlich and CPR. When paramedics arrived, she was rushed to the hospital where it was determined that the loss of oxygen to her brain had caused “irreparable” damage; she died that night. The family filed a lawsuit against the now-closed nightclub, which is still pending. Harbeck had not signed a waiver form when she started eating the corn dog that ended her life.
What About Waivers?
When asked if it required its “Tex-Ass” contest entrants to sign a waiver before starting, Voodoo Doughnuts did not respond to requests for comment. But sometimes a restaurant or organization fails or forgets to have entrants sign a waiver. Sometimes the waiver form isn’t written clearly, and if alcohol enters the picture, the waiver might not be enforceable at all. In some cases, if an eating contest goes awry, the sheet of paper meant to protect organizers can leave them open to litigation.
In instances of recklessness (if alcohol is involved, for instance), gross negligence (if organizers failed to secure required permits or inspections), or if minors are involved, “those waivers are never enforceable,” says Tom Baker, professor of law and health services at the University of Pennsylvania. And the enforceability of a waiver may also have to do with whether or not a state court has addressed a similar case. “Gym waivers, for instance,” Baker says of the forms people sign before working out at a gym or participating in a yoga or spin class, “are unenforceable in most states — except in Pennsylvania because a court case in the ‘50s addressed them, and as part of the outcome they were ruled enforceable.” Depending on the state, the judge overseeing an eating-contest lawsuit could look at similar cases for guidance.
Then there’s the question of assessing risk in cases where the public enters into an activity that could be considered entertainment. “The courts will ask: Is this activity targeted at the general public, or at what we could call a risk-seeking community?” Baker says. “I could see an argument where a lot of these contests, like Nathan’s Hot Dog Competition, are targeted at risk-seekers who know what they signed up for.” Yale Law School Professor Douglas Kysar concurs. “At a competition like Nathan’s you’re dealing with entrants who are very familiar with the situation they are entering into. They trained for this, they’re engaging in it as a job — rather than as a consumer. In that case, the courts will look at the waiver as though it’s a contract between two fully-aware, sophisticated parties.” Such a contract would likely be enforceable. But there’s another extreme.
“Imagine a case in which a restaurant hosts a Buffalo wing-eating contest. This is the type of place where the winner gets a t-shirt and their photo on the wall,” Kysar says. “It’s casual, participants are local diners who may have never entered a food-eating contest before. Even if they sign a waiver, it’s almost never enforceable.” That’s because this is considered a consumer transaction, and “the courts will feel protective of the people who lack the information to make sound decisions about the type of risk they are accepting when they sign the waiver.” The only possible, though not probable, exception is if the waiver is written with “extreme precision” outlining all potential risks, and “if the entrant had to read it aloud, and repeat all of the details” to a representative, Kysar says, “maybe, maybe that would be enforceable.”
Alan Sykes, a professor of law at Stanford University, also notes that the enforceability of these waivers varies widely from state to state and by the type of competition. “What a waiver form can do is provide a sort of warning that can negate the notion of negligence,” Sykes says.
Is the risk ever worth the reward? “With that doughnut,” Santel says of the Colorado man who died, “there are many, many thousands of people that have tried that challenge and it’s never been an issue, so I don’t believe you can say it’s a dangerous challenge.” But, he says of the college student who died in Connecticut, that incident was different: She wasn’t a trained competitive eater when she entered that contest. “If you don’t know what you’re doing,” Santel says, “no matter what you’re doing, it can be dangerous.”