The Big Chill

On Feb. 16, Corona del Mar resident Chris Stearns bought a Swanson's chicken dinner from his neighborhood Albertson's on Pacific Coast Highway. That night, while attempting to open the package, Stearns realized the dinner had already expired-more than three years ago.

"I had a problem getting a voucher coupon off the plastic wrapping," said Stearns. "So I turned on the light and saw that the food didn't look like anything I could recognize as food. That's when I checked the box and saw the expiration date was Dec. 31, 1995."

Stearns, who still has the dinner in his freezer, said the chicken marrow was black, the corn was white, and the brownie looked like mud. He added that it appeared to him the package had been thawed at some point and refrozen.

Stearns says that after confirming that he had purchased the "food" when he said he did, an Albertson's manager asked him not to do anything about it. Stearns refused. "What would have happened if an old person who couldn't see very well had bought that package?" he asked. "I want Albertson's to be accountable for this."

According to Stearns, Jason Morgan -an official with the Albertson's claims department in La Habra-called him two days after his purchase to apologize and offer $500. Stearns declined. He said Morgan called the next day but offered only $100. Stearns said he turned that offer down even faster, even though "an attorney friend of mine advised me to take the money because I wasn't harmed."

According to Michael Read, Albertson's vice president for public affairs, Morgan apologized to Stearns for the incident but didn't mention any dollar amount. "An apology was certainly warranted, but this fellow was talking as though this was worth millions to him," Read said, describing Stearns as "not the kind of individual who wanted to be reasonable."

As for an explanation for the food, Read said it was simply a matter of employees at the Corona del Mar store not "rotating product" as they should. Read said every Albertson's store and warehouse has since undergone a "thorough search" to make sure no other inappropriate items were ready for sale.

But Stearns says Morgan told him a different story. Stearns says Morgan first insisted that any blame would fall on employees at the Corona del Mar store since "that's the way our company works." When Stearns argued the point, he said, Morgan then admitted that corporate distribution hadn't sent the dinner to the store until after it had expired.

The incident comes at a particularly bad time for Albertson's. On March 25, KCBS/Channel 2 news aired a segment alleging that Albertson's repackages meat and chicken that had passed their sell-by dates. The segment featured a former employee who worked at four Albertson's stores in Riverside County who also alleged that sauce was added to some expired meat and then sold as "seasoned" beef. For the segment, Albertson's said such practices were completely "unauthorized."

Ironically, the company's Web site says Albertson's is currently promoting "Food Safety Education Days"-awareness events at which employees and health-agency representatives can "discuss proper and safe food-handling techniques."

"[C]ustomers are more aware of the importance of safe food handling," says the site. "Albertson's is committed to providing information to consumers to help them keep food safe after they leave our stores."

-Anthony Pignataro

GUINEA-PIG KUBBY "God Bless Orange County," proclaims Steve Kubby, the 1998 Libertarian gubernatorial candidate, as he sits in a friend's OC home, eating a garlic tofu dip. Although he and his wife, Michele, face 19 criminal charges between them relating to their medicinal use of marijuana, both seem at ease and confident. Perhaps it's because they're so far from their Placer County home and in an area that has proved supportive to their plight.

"Orange County is leading the way on this issue-the media, the OC Weekly, The Orange County Register, the OC Libertarians, Marvin Chavez," Kubby says. "The conservatives recognize-the liberals are still out to lunch-but the conservatives of Orange County understand that if you pass a law, you're supposed to follow it."

With the arraignment for their court cases not until March 19, the Kubbys journeyed to Orange County to participate in fund-raisers. While here, Kubby will undergo medical examinations. Unlike many medical-marijuana patients, for whom pot smoking alleviates symptoms of disease, Kubby's use of marijuana seems the sole barrier between life and death from an incurable form of adrenal cancer, an opinion put forward by USC's Dr. Vincent DeQuattro, a leading specialist in the field, and recently backed by Dr. Lester Grinspoon of Harvard University.

In one of the tests, researchers will inject Kubby with a radioactive metabolite that will allow DeQuattro's staff to see exactly where his tumors are located. They'll also check his blood and urine.

The threat of prison seems only to have strengthened the Kubbys' determination to promote enforcement of the Compassionate Use Act-otherwise known as Proposition 215-and, as Kubby put it, to keep "upping the ante" on their persecutors.

Kubby has already announced plans to run for governor again in 2002. His wife is considering a run for the U.S. Senate. A UC Berkeley graduate with degrees in political science and international studies, Michele Kubby was extensively involved with the battle to win passage of Prop. 215.

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