updated 3/25/2005 6:48:49 PM ET 2005-03-25T23:48:49

Sales have dropped sharply at Wendy's fast food restaurants in the area of northern California where a woman claimed she found part of a finger in a bowl of chili , but analysts say the company's long-term prognosis should not be affected.

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Peter Oakes, a restaurant analyst with Piper Jaffray & Co. in New York, said he doesn't expect Wendy's business to suffer long term from the discovery Tuesday night of a partial finger.

The hamburger chain serves about 6 million meals a day across the country and has a "national reputation for both quality and cleanliness," he said.

"To me the yard stick here is whether the single incident prompts the consumer to lose confidence in the brand. It's understandable to see some kind of knee-jerk reaction," Oakes said.

Franchise owners have informed the company's corporate headquarters in the Columbus suburb of Dublin that business is down, said Denny Lynch, spokesman for Wendy's International Inc. He said he could not release specific sales figures because Wendy's does not own those restaurants.

"It is an isolated incident. However, it is dramatically affecting sales in that market," Lynch said.

Authorities in San Jose, Calif., planned to search a fingerprint database on Friday to try to identify the finger's owner.

Capt. Bob Dixon of the Santa Clara County coroner's office said he did not know when their fingerprint expert might have a match. "Nobody's claimed it yet," he said.

Wendy's said the finger did not come from the restaurant's employees. It is also confident company suppliers are not to blame because of product coding that allows the company to trace where a product comes from, the day it was produced, when it was shipped and when it arrived at the restaurant, Lynch said.

However, he acknowledged the process was "not absolutely 100 percent perfect."

Matt Baun, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service, said it was doubtful a person working at a federal beef producer would have lost the finger in an accident.

"The production line would have stopped, there would have been immediate need for medical attention and the meat products would be destroyed and not used for food," he said.

A Louisville, Ky., lawyer who has handled similar cases said he doesn't expect Wendy's image to take much of a hit.

Bo Bolus, who has represented plaintiffs over foreign objects found in McDonald's food and defended insurance companies against those claims, said consumers tend to realize that incidents like the one at Wendy's are accidents.

"I haven't found any big institutional problems in the fast-food chains," Bolus said. "I still go to McDonald's with my four boys."

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