BRIDGETON, N.J. -- A tomato cannery that employs more than 600 workers during its peak months to load the air with hot, spicy steam will shut down by the end of the year, company officials said Wednesday.
The cannery, a red brick institution in the Cumberland County seat, is owned by Hunt-Wesson Foods Inc., the largest food processor in the state still purchasing substantial amounts of fresh produce from local farmers.
The company 'will phase out its operations between now and the end of the year,' said plant manager James Ramsey. 'We deeply regret having to take this action.'
The move will be another financial blow to the county, where state figures show unemployment at 14.9 percent, the highest in New Jersey.
The plant currently employs 135 workers fulltime for maintenance and production, and hires 500 seasonal workers for August and September, when the Jersey tomatoes are ripened and ready for processing into ketchup and tomato sauce.
Ramsey said Hunt-Wesson decided to close the Bridgeton plant after surveys showed that moving all its operations to its western canneries would be more profitable.
He said the decision was based on several factors, including the climate.
The tomato season is nearly twice as long on the West Coast, Ramsey said, adding that milder weather conditions allowed for a larger and more dependable tomato crop annually.
'The volume of tomato tonnage is not as predictable from season to season in the East as it is there (on the West Coast),' he said.
He said Hunt-Wesson would continue to produce ketchup and other products at canneries it operates in Ohio and California, adding those plants were newer and more efficient.
Ramsey said almost all the current employees would be let go, but the plant's staff would counsel its former workers in finding employment and work with government officials and the two unions at the plant - Local 576 of the Teamsters and Local 56 of the United Food and Commercial Workers -- to help them in job hunting.
Union officials could not be reached for comment.
Hunt-Wesson, which bought the cannery from E. Pritchard Foods Corp. in 1949, is a subsidiary of the New York-based Norton Simon Inc.