Three days before America sits down for Thanksgiving dinner, the nation's second-largest turkey producer Monday recalled fresh birds in California and eight other western states.
Norbest Inc. of Salt Lake City said it notified grocers that an undetermined number of turkeys from a batch of 70,000 may have been exposed to excessive heat, which accelerated the decaying process and caused them to smell like rotten eggs.
Company officials said the tainted turkeys were processed at its Salem, Ore., plant. Frozen turkeys--which make up the bulk of the birds consumed in this country--were not recalled.
"There is no health hazard involved whatsoever. It's just a question of a disagreeable odor," said Paul Reed, marketing director for Norbest. "But we don't want consumers to wake up Thanksgiving morning, open the bag and have that kind of experience. So we are taking this precautionary measure."
Reed said the suspect turkeys are between eight and 12 pounds and are on sale in Oregon, Washington, California, Idaho, Nevada, Arizona, Montana, Utah and Wyoming. Consumers may return their smelly turkeys and receive a refund or a replacement bird, he said.
Bill Mattos, executive director of the California Poultry Industry Federation, said the recall was unfortunate but would have no significant effect on turkey availability in the state. Most of the fresh turkeys consumed in California are produced locally, he said.
"There are plenty of turkeys out there, so consumers can rest assured they will be able to get one for Thanksgiving," Mattos said. "We have too much supply and the price won't be affected at all."
Reed said the company has received 10 complaints about its turkeys since Nov. 20, and has heard no reports of illness.
Among the first to suspect something was afoul was Tom Honer, owner of Harvest Market in Ft. Bragg, Calif. In an interview Monday, Honer said his butcher was chopping up a few turkeys for parts and noticed "a gassy, sewer-like odor" that was "real noxious and pungent."
"You sometimes get that smell with poultry, but it usually fades away," Honer said. "If it lingers, you know you've got a problem. And with these toms, it lingered."
Honer said he sent back about 5,000 pounds of fresh turkeys, creating a big gap in his market's inventory.
"Our customers prefer fresh, so we're hurting and you can't get any more from the suppliers this late," Honer said. "But I guess we'll limp through."
Reed said an investigation is under way to determine what caused the turkey trouble. He said that at some point during processing or distribution, the fowl were exposed to temperatures above the 30- to 35-degree level needed to keep them from spoiling.
The affected turkeys are labeled "Norbest Fresh Tender-Timed Young Turkey" or "Norbest Family Tradition Fresh Young Turkey." They carry the code "P-113" stamped on the metal clip on the end of the bag. They also have the following production codes: 0413051, 0423051, 0413081, 0423081, 0413091, 0433101, 0443101, 0413111, 0423111, 0413121, 0413151, 0413161 and 0413171.
Grocers carrying Norbest fresh turkeys include Safeway, Thrift-way, Sentry, Food Connection, Food Warehouse, Select Markets and several independent stores. Most of the recalled turkeys were shipped to stores in Washington and Oregon, but some are in California, Reed said.
The announcement marks the second time in recent years that Norbest has recalled turkeys because of quality problems. In 1988, the company recalled 20,000 in eight states because of spoiled giblets and necks.
Norbest officials acknowledged that recalling turkeys just before Thanksgiving is going to cost them--in dollars and consumer confidence.
"This is the nightmare we always dread," Reed said. "But we don't want our consumers to wake up Thursday morning, find that objectionable smell and associate our brand name with that. . . . So we're willing to bite the bullet on this one."
Despite the recall, Norbest continued to assure those who telephoned the Utah headquarters about the quality of the company's birds. Norbest fresh turkeys, a recording that greeted callers said, are "quickly chilled immediately after processing" and then "rushed to the store in the most fresh and wholesome condition."
The recall closely follows some other bad turkey news. Last week, researchers at Pennsylvania State University reported that at least 843,000 birds die each year from heart attacks.