Cape Town - A food product does not necessarily become unsafe the day after its expiry date marking, Cape Town's city health department said on Tuesday.
In a statement on the furore over "reworked" frozen chickens, the department's acting director Dr Virginia Azuvedo said displaying expiry dates was currently voluntary, and was done mostly for quality purposes.
"The practice of re-freezing products is allowed in the industry, on condition that the surface temperature has not reached above 7 degrees Celsius and that the re-processing is done according to good manufacturing practices," she said.
Adding brine to the product was also allowed. It was done mostly for taste and to prevent it from drying out.
According to city health's information, returns from the retail trade to Supreme Poultry, the manufacturer at the centre of the controversy, were not re-processed for human consumption but used to manufacture bone meal.
Supreme said earlier on Tuesday that it did "rework" birds for human consumption, but that it had never supplied them to supermarket chains.
In a statement, Supreme also announced that it was taking legal action against former employee Johan Matthee, the source of front-page claims published in Rapport on Sunday.
According to the report the company was thawing, washing, injecting, rebranding, then reselling the chickens with new expiry dates to outlets such as Pick n Pay and Shoprite Checkers.
"Supreme confirms that no reworked product has ever been supplied into the food service or retail sectors, which include Pick n Pay and Shoprite Checkers under their own brand names, as well as the Supreme brand," the company said on Tuesday.
"Re-working at Supreme Poultry occurs on a limited scale, and is conducted in accordance with the protocols as dictated by the department of agriculture.
"The product may be used for specified purposes after re-working, including human consumption, animal consumption and rendering."
It said there were strict quality controls, including an initial bacterial inspection.
"The product is then re-processed through the frozen production cycle and repacked exclusively into a plain or Supa Value (a brand name) bag, and date coded for traceability.
"Any product found not to be of standard and fit for human consumption is immediately discarded to rendering for the production of carcass meal."
Supreme marketing director John Neilson told Sapa that reworked chickens fit for human consumption were sold only through Supreme's factory shops, at its abattoirs in Botshabelo, Mafikeng, and Tigane near Klerksdorp.
There they could be bought by private individuals, or by people such as spaza shop owners or independent wholesalers.
Neilson said one reason a chicken might be reworked was that its packaging had split, either at a Supreme plant or in a supermarket.
Given the rapid turnover of chickens through the major retail chains - Supreme was currently making deliveries virtually daily to one outlet - he strongly doubted whether any reworked chickens had actually reached their expiry date.
Supreme had in fact some four months ago begun implementing a new arrangement with Pick n Pay Stores [JSE:PIK] under which no chickens were returned, and the store itself disposed of them.
He said even a chicken that had reached its expiry date was not "bad", merely of a lower quality.
Neilson noted that by law, frozen chickens would have to carry expiry dates only from March 2012.
The Supreme statement said claims of illegal reworking had been the "malicious" work of Matthee, whose services had been recently terminated on the grounds of alleged sexual harassment.
Legal action was being taken against him, not only for making false claims but also for causing deliberate damage to the company names and brands with Country Bird Holdings [JSE:CBH], of which Supreme is a subsidiary.
On Monday, Pick n Pay said it was completely satisfied that no chickens sold to Pick n Pay had or would ever be refrozen and remarked with new expiry dates.
Company representatives had paid a surprise visit to Supreme and found no evidence to back up the allegations.