The Azusa City Council last week rejected a $1-million claim by a Wilmington-based Mexican-food processor that said it has lost about that amount because of a false report that part of a human finger was found in a can of its soup.
The food processor, Juanita's Foods, blames the Azusa Police Department for giving credence to the story.
"I have no doubt Juanita's Foods has suffered," Azusa City Administrator and Police Chief Lloyd Wood said May 5, the day after the City Council rejected the claim without discussion.
But he added: "I take the position that the loss they have suffered is not" the city's fault.
Under state law, an individual or firm alleging damage by a city must file a claim within 100 days of the incident before it can sue. In a telephone interview, Paul Denzer, an attorney for Juanita's Foods, said the company had filed the claim April 16 to protect its right to sue, but has not decided whether to do so.
The claim did not specify what erroneous information was released by police.
However, Denzer said 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 informed the family that found the object in the soup that it was part of a human finger.
"That is why all the newspapers carried the story--because it had presumably been established and verified," Denzer said.
After the story was widely circulated, a spokesman for the hospital denied that a pathologist had identified the object.
As it turned out, the object was not a finger but a piece of connective tissue normally found in tripe, a beef byproduct that is the main ingredient of Mexican menudo soup .
The claim said the company has lost more than $1 million in income because of adverse publicity and has incurred expenses of about $50,000 to respond to the false allegation. In the aftermath of the incident, the company hired a public relations firm that specializes in "crisis consultations."
Azusa police say they were contacted on the evening of Jan. 2 by a man who said that he, his brother and their wives were eating Juanita's canned menudo when they found in it what appeared to be a human finger with a fingernail.
An officer told reporters at the time that the family said they had taken the object to Glendora Community Hospital and that 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 had 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, news of the reported find 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.
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 the same period last year, a drop he attributes to the false report.
"It has had such an impact on us; it just cannibalizedour 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 lion's share of the company's business.