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Firm Says Reports of Finger in Soup Cost It $1 Million : Juanitas Foods' Claim Against Azusa Rejected

May 07, 1987|TIM WATERS | Times Staff Writer

A Wilmington-based Mexican-food processor says it has lost more than $1 million because of false reports that part of a human finger had been found in a can of its soup, and it blames the Azusa Police Department for giving credence to the story.

The Azusa City Council, however, has rejected a $1-million claim filed by Juanita's Foods.

Not Fault of City

"I have no doubt Juanita's Foods has suffered," Lloyd Wood, Azusa city administrator and police chief, said Tuesday, the day after the council rejected the claim without discussion. "But I take the position that the loss they have suffered is not" the city's fault.

Under state law, an individual or company claiming damage by a city must file a claim within 100 days before it can sue.

In a telephone interview, Juanita's Foods attorney Paul Denzer said the claim was filed to protect the company's right to file a lawsuit, but no decision has been reached on whether it will do so.

The claim, which was filed with the city April 16, did not specify what erroneous information was released by police.

However, Denzer asserted that Juanita's was damaged in January when an Azusa police officer told the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and United Press International that a pathologist at Glendora Community Hospital had said that the object found in the soup was a finger.

"That is why all the newspapers carried the story," Denzer said. "Because it had presumably been established and verified."

Had Not Been Identified

After the story was widely circulated, a spokesman for the hospital said no pathologist had identified the object.

The object turned out to be piece of connective tissue normally found in tripe, a beef byproduct that is the main ingredient of menudo, a Mexican soup.

The claim states that the company has lost more than $1 million in income because of adverse publicity and has incurred expenses of about $50,000 responding to the false allegation. The company has hired a public relations firm that specializes in "crisis consultations."

Azusa police say they were contacted on Jan. 2 by a man who said that he, his brother and their wives had sat down for dinner and were eating some of Juanita's canned menudo when they discovered what appeared to be a human finger with a fingernail on it.

Confirmed by Pathologist

An officer told reporters at the time that the family said they had taken the object to Glendora Community Hospital and a pathologist had confirmed that the object was a finger.

Police took the two-inch object from the family and later turned it over to federal food inspectors. They determined that the specimen was animal tissue, but only after the newspaper published a short story on the alleged find, based on the police account.

UPI saw the Tribune article and ran a similar story. A UPI reporter said an Azusa police lieutenant told him that he had seen the object and that it appeared to be a finger.

Before the object was properly identified, the news had traveled across the country and even to South America. Radio commentator Paul Harvey told his audience--erroneously--that Juanita's products had been pulled from all Southern California grocery shelves. Harvey later ran a correction.

Sales Declined

George De La Torre, general manager and co-owner of Juanita's, said sales of the company's menudo declined by $1 million during the first four months of this year compared to 1986, a drop he attributes to the false report.

"It has had such an impact on us. It just cannibalized our time for three months," De La Torre said. "It has just had terrible effects on us."

Juanita's employs about 75 people and had gross sales of about $13 million last year. Canned menudo accounts for the biggest share of the company's business.

Wood said Azusa police have not changed press procedures as a result of the incident and no officer has been disciplined.

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