SOUTHFIELD, Mich. -- In a pointed response to a product-condemnation announcement issued by federal regulators, Thorn Apple Valley officials here said the wording of the government statement mistakenly made it sound like a new recall had hit the company.
That is not the case, officials said.
Joel Dorfman, company president, described as "grossly misleading" the press release issued by an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, headlined "USDA Declares Product From Thorn Apple Valley Unfit for Human Consumption."
"We think that the release [the Food Safety and Inspection Service] issued unnecessarily caused some alarm and some confusion," he said. "They've caused this situation where the implication is that somehow all Thorn Apple Valley products are suspect."
In reality, the April 13 condemnation announcement from the FSIS pertained to meat and poultry items that had already been voluntarily recalled by the company in January. Dorfman said the Forrest City, Ark., plant, which produced the recalled products, has remained closed since Dec. 31.
The company's remaining four plants -- which remain open and were completely unaffected by the recall -- have continued to manufacture products under more stringent safety procedures, he said.
It was later determined that the FSIS statement was issued in response to the company's request to "recondition" the recalled meat so that it could be sold. Dorfman said this could be accomplished through a number of procedures, particularly irradiation.
Irradiated meat is still prohibited in the United States, but permitted in some countries, such as Russia, and can be sold there. Dorfman said that one option for the treated products would have been to sell it to the country.
But, the USDA denied the request, and issued the press release in question, saying the meat could not be used for human consumption. Now, the meat will likely be cooked -- which would kill all bacteria -- and used for pet food, which federal law permits.
"Unfortunately, we have consumers confused, customers confused, the press confused," he said. "We have people returning products of ours, all caused by this press release that was very poorly worded."
This most recent headache involving the FSIS release came at a time when Thorn Apple Valley was in the process of developing and implementing new food-safety processes for its operating plants, as well as creating new products, and developing a new logo and new packaging.
According to the FSIS report, the condemned products included nine million pounds of meat presently being stored in a number of U.S. warehouses and more than 12 million pounds of products that were exported to Russia and South Korea. All were from the January recall of 30 million pounds of products, which were believed tainted with the Listeria monocytogenes bacteria.
In his response to the FSIS release, Dorfman stressed that "the USDA has not confirmed any illnesses resulting from the consumption of TAV products."
Also, he said that "TAV has already recalled all product produced in Forrest City during the last five months of 1998, and believe[s] there are no recalled products in the marketplace," and that "TAV never submitted a plan to reintroduce this product into the marketplace."
The FSIS release said that all the products produced by TVA's Forrest City, Ark., plant "may contain physical and/or microbiological contaminants." It said the products were not prepared in accordance with requirements under the Federal Meat and Poultry Products Inspection Acts.
The USDA indefinitely suspended operations of the Forrest City, Ark., processing plant Dec. 31 because of TAV's "noncompliance with pre-operational and operational sanitation requirements."
In the latest release, the FSIS reminded consumers to check all Thorn Apple Valley products in their possession for the codes involved in the recall, "EST 13529" or "EST P-13529." The recall covered 30 million pounds of frankfurter and lunch combination products produced after July 6, 1998.
The cost of the recall, coupled with a drop in export opportunities, took a toll on the company, which sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in March. It hired the investment firm of Peter J. Solomon & Co., to seek financing, or a buyer.
A recent Securities Exchange Commission filing indicated that meat processor IBP Inc., Dakota City, Neb., was interested in buying some or all of Thorn Apple Valley's assets if the company sold them during bankruptcy proceedings. Dorfman said he is not aware of any such offer.
The company has been able to secure interim financing of $7 million, allowing it to continue operating while still under bankruptcy protection.
Trying to take full advantage of its new financial backing, the company has undertaken an extensive food-safety program under the guidance of Kansas City State University, and has simultaneously begun a reorganization of its Food Safety and Quality Assurance Department.
A "President's Safety and Quality Hot Line" has also been established so employees can directly reach Dorfman regarding any food-safety issue (see "Meat-Processing Lines Are Upgraded After Listeria Scare," SN, March 29, 1999).