ST. PETERSBURG — They're a familiar sight in some bay area neighborhoods: men and women in unmarked pickup trucks, selling frozen meat and seafood door-to-door out of a refrigerated box marked Direct USA. "Delicious food!" the container reads.
In some recent cases, "Not salable for human consumption" might have been a more accurate motto, according to a lawsuit the St. Petersburg company filed this month against a former supplier.
Direct USA claims it spent upwards of $500,000 issuing cash refunds or replacement items to hundreds of customers who complained about inedible meat. The 10-year-old company says a "significant quantity" of the beef, pork or chicken it bought from Illinois-based Quantum Foods over an unspecified period was spoiled or mushy, contained excessive fat or gristle, or had "unusual" flavors or smells. Direct USA says it didn't know the meat was bad because it arrived frozen and vacuum-packed, and flaws typically don't appear until after the meat thaws.
Quantum Foods has not yet responded to the lawsuit. Spokesman Ken Trantowski said Wednesday that Direct USA still owes it money for past shipments, and he confirmed that the companies' nearly five-year relationship ended in December 2007. (Direct USA has since hired a new supplier.)
Direct USA's owner, 42-year-old Largo resident Steven S. James, declined to be interviewed. But Tampa attorney Rick Fee, who represents the company, said some of the Quantum Foods meat was so bad that one customer claimed to have given it to the family dog. "The problem is, Quantum's name isn't on the box. Our name is," he said. Toward that end, Direct USA "immediately" supplied refunds or exchanges to customers who complained— an honorable approach "in an industry, door-to-door sales, that is generally not well-regarded," Fee said.
But some customers weren't so quick to absolve Direct USA from blame:
• Like Quantum Foods, a top supplier to the U.S. military, Direct USA has an "unsatisfactory" with the Better Business Bureau. But whereas Quantum was the subject of just two complaints over the past three years, Direct USA has been targeted with 48, and it has failed to respond to 15 of them.
• In 2006, Carolyn Hunter of Bushnell bought five boxes of steaks for $161 from a Direct USA saleswoman who approached her in a Tampa parking lot. A week later, she invited friends over for a barbecue but found the steaks inedible. Hunter claims she spent months trying to get a refund without success until she filed a complaint. A company manager offered to exchange the steaks for pork, but those, too, proved awful. "I ended up throwing them away because they just tasted so bizarre," she said in an interview. "I could buy better cuts at Publix for cheaper."
• James McArdle of Sebastian said he and several friends fell ill after eating meat purchased from Direct USA in 2005. "I contacted them and they gave me the run around for over four or five months," he said in an e-mail to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. "I would hate for someone else to get sick or even die from this." (Agriculture Department spokesman Terry McElroy said Direct USA is properly licensed and has passed regular inspections of its cold-storage facility and refrigerated truck containers.)
Fee, the Direct USA attorney, said the company never conducted a recall of Quantum's meat because not all of it was bad. He did not respond to e-mailed questions Wednesday about one unusual practice: why his client's Web site recommends customers barbecue their steaks frozen rather than thawed.
Joe G. McCullough, an executive vice president with the National Barbecue Association in Austin, Texas, said professional barbecue cooks always thaw their meat first. Grilling "slow and low" allows the meat to cook evenly, the smoke to penetrate, and the fat to properly break down. Grilling frozen steak "just goes against the grain of everything our guys would do," he said.
Scott Barancik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8751.