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WHEELING, W.V. - Blaming adverse publicity from a salmonella outbreak this past summer that sickened more than 400 people, Coronet Foods has pulled the plug on its operations.
Coronet, which supplied bagged salads, vegetables, and fruits to customers in about 20 states, distributed sliced Roma tomatoes used in sandwiches sold at Sheetz convenience stores, which triggered an outbreak that sickened about 330 people in Pennsylvania and 80 in surrounding states.
"Coronet Foods has had long-term relations with its many customers and has had a tremendous work force over the years," the company said last Friday in a statement. "It is with a great deal of regret that we have ceased operations."
The move, which leaves 220 workers jobless, was a result of lost sales stemming from adverse publicity following the outbreak, which made it impossible for the firm to continue operations, according to company officials.
After the outbreak, Altoona, Pa.-based Sheetz immediately discontinued doing business with Coronet, which cost the produce distributor roughly 8 percent of its total revenues, according to reports.
A Coronet official was quoted as saying that the salmonella incident caused a "dramatic reduction" in sales over the summer in the neighborhood of a 40 percent decline. Coronet Foods, which has operated in Wheeling for nearly 40 years, said it was unable to find buyers or partners that would enable the business to continue.
A Coronet spokesman told a local paper that an inspection by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration found no salmonella contamination at its Wheeling facility.
However, a lawyer representing 107 people affected by the salmonella outbreak said the FDA had not cleared Coronet of responsibility in the case, adding that investigators only found that the plant was not contaminated.
Regardless of the closure, the lawyer said the lawsuits would proceed in view of Coronet's adequate insurance coverage to resolve all the claims.
The company is seeking to sell its operations and is in continuing discussions with several prospective buyers, although no firm purchase offers have been made, according to reports. Coronet's Eastern operations have been based in Wheeling, and the company is also in the process of selling its Western division, based in Salinas, Calif. and Yuma, Ariz.