Blanching plant shuts down

Published 11:07 pm Tuesday, February 17, 2009

About 13 people are out of work, and a building owned by Nansemond Cold Storage Co. stands unused this week, following the sudden shutdown of Tidewater Blanching Corp. on Friday.

Bankruptcy trustees are determining what will happen to the machinery and personal property within the building leased by Tidewater Blanching, according to Andy Goldstein, a Roanoke bankruptcy attorney.

Goldstein has been representing Peanut Corporation of America — which owns the Suffolk company — since PCA declared bankruptcy last week in the face of a widening federal probe into a salmonella outbreak traced back to PCA’s peanut butter products.

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Goldstein said Tuesday that Tidewater Blanching’s business had been hamstrung since a United States Department of Agriculture order that prohibited PCA and its subsidiaries from doing any business with the government or doing any business with companies that do work for the government.

“There wasn’t much of a voluntary issue,” he said in a telephone interview.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration said it found direct links between a Peanut Corp. plant in Blakely, Ga., and salmonella strains that have sickened more than 600 people and killed as many as nine. Government inspectors also found evidence of the bacteria at the company’s Plainview, Texas, plant.

Thousands of products that contain the company’s peanuts have been recalled, and — as Goldstein noted — PCA and its subsidiaries were banned from participating in government contracts for three years.

The FDA, which conducted a two-week investigation at the County Street plant in January, has not announced discovering evidence of salmonella at the Suffolk plant, where nuts that would be sent to the company’s roasting and processing facilities were blanched to remove their outer skins.

“I guess they were just covering a big problem with a really big net,” Goldstein said of the fact that the government’s disbarment had extended to the Suffolk plant.

Still, though, reports from state inspections during the past three years revealed conditions in Suffolk that were serious enough to be reported, even if they were not so significant as to result in fines.

In October, dead mice were found in two different traps inside the building, a 32-inch gap in a strip curtain could have allowed pests into the facility and 43 2,000-pound totes full of shelled, blanched peanuts were found with “an accumulation of black, green and yellow mold … on the outside surface” of the bags and on the peanuts at the top of the containers.

Operations manager Cathy Mullins told inspectors from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Community Services’ Food Safety and Security Program that the peanuts in the containers were bound for oil stock, wild game feed or landfill destruction, according to documents obtained through the Virginia Freedom of Information Act.

The previous inspection, conducted by a contractor for the state last May, resulted a write-up listing the following conditions:

A live bird loose inside the warehouse and alighting on totes full of blanched peanuts;

Totes with holes in them, spilling their blanched peanuts onto the floor;

43 mouse droppings near a refrigeration unit;

A gap in strip curtains that could allow pests into the building; A January 2007 inspection by a private contractor working for VDACS uncovered:

A brown flaking substance that appeared to be fine peanut material floating down into the rework hopper from inside the ridge vent in the roof;

Peeling tape on the ceiling;

Flaking paint on pipes in the ceiling over the blanching machines;

A broken cardboard bin of blanched peanuts, with at least 250 pounds of peanuts spilled onto the floor.

All of those issues except for the peeling tape had been fixed when an inspector returned for a compliance review in May 2007.

Plant officials did not answer phones on Tuesday, though a Nansemond Cold Storage employee said Mullins, the operations manager, had been at the facility early in the day.

An automated telephone system routed calls to the PCA headquarters in Lynchburg, where another automated message stated, “As you may know, certain recent events have made it necessary for Peanut Corporation of America to seek protection under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. Effective immediately, all corporate operations will cease. Therefore, there is no one presently available to take your call.”

“The employees, I think, are OK,” Goldstein said Tuesday, adding, “I believe they got paid.”

He said he expects the trustee appointed to handle the Chapter 7 bankruptcy to begin an inventory of assets at the Suffolk location in order to liquidate them for cash to pay PCA’s debts.

City officials would not comment on the closure.