PORTLAND — With the next blueberry harvest months away, the growers who own the Sunrise County Wild Blueberry co-op in Cherryfield are looking for a way to replace a year’s worth of stored fruit.

The company is among almost two dozen Maine businesses that are feeling a financial pinch because of an ammonia leak in January at Americold Logistics in Portland. The state says that millions of pounds of frozen food at the facility has been contaminated and must be destroyed or proven to be safe.

“It’s been real devastating for us,” said Velma Orcutt, president of Sunrise County Wild Blueberry, whose major customer is Hannaford Supermarkets.

The company, which sells under the Maine/Maritime Select Wild Blueberries label, has 84,492 pints and 795 five-pound boxes — about a year’s worth of frozen blueberries — in the Americold warehouse. The blueberries had a retail value of more than $240,000.

After the ammonia leak Jan. 22, the Maine Department of Agriculture placed an embargo on all of the products in the cold-storage warehouse, preventing their owners from removing them without state permission.

Twenty-nine companies, most of them based in Maine, had food in the 150,000-square-foot facility at the time of the leak. Since then, three companies — Barber Foods, Kraft Foods and RFS Ltd. — have destroyed their stored products.

The others are awaiting legal guidance, insurance reimbursements and laboratory test results before they determine what to do with the food.

An Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation of the Americold facility after the leak revealed several violations, an OSHA representative said Tuesday.

The representative, Bill Coffin, said he cannot reveal the nature of the violations or whether they have been linked to the ammonia leak until OSHA confirms that Americold has been notified, which is expected this week.

Americold has drawn penalties for safety violations at its facilities elsewhere in the United States, including a $740,000 fine for a facility in Milwaukie, Ore., imposed just a week before the spill in Portland.

Americold did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Cherryfield Foods, a Maine subsidiary of the Canadian firm Oxford Frozen Foods, had blueberries and cranberries stored at Americold in Portland. The company has hired a lab to test its products to determine whether they are contaminated.

“There were many rooms (in the warehouse), and some were impacted more than others,” said Geoff Baldwin, treasurer of Oxford Frozen Foods.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture have jurisdiction over the food, but those agencies have assigned the Maine Department of Agriculture to the case.

“We would certainly take a look at releasing that food if we can prove it’s safe,” said Hal Prince of the Maine agency. He said food intended for sale out of state would need further approvals from the FDA and the USDA.

Until then, all the businesses can do is wait.

“It’s been an extremely difficult situation,” said Dwight Leighton, a buyer for the family-owned Caswell’s Liquidation Center, based in Waterville.

The company has $300,000 worth of frozen vegetables and prepared food at Americold. Leighton declined to say more about the situation, citing a potential legal battle between his company’s insurance provider and Americold’s insurer.

Stewart Wooden, an owner of the Portland-based seafood wholesaler North Atlantic Inc., said the accident highlights the need for more cold storage in southern Maine. “There’s only one freezer facility in the Portland area,” he said.

North Atlantic, which has about 70,000 pounds of fish stored at Americold, is now shipping its fish to a cold storage facility in the Boston area, which increases the cost of its products.

“We have no choice at this point,” Wooden said. “We’re trying to figure out a solution. Maybe a new freezer here or somewhere else in Maine.”

Since the leak, Sunrise County Wild Blueberry has been tapping into the personal stores of growers to fill orders.

“We’ve been lucky we had three pallets in storage in Belfast,” Orcutt said. “We’re hoping we’ll have enough to last to the next harvest.”

The company intends to destroy its blueberries at Americold, but it’s awaiting payment from Americold’s insurance carrier and the advice of its attorney. Sunrise County did not have its own insurance covering damage to its product in storage.

Sunrise County intends to use Americold again when this season’s crop is harvested, but other companies are considering alternatives, even if that means going out of state.

“We do have our own storage,” said Lynne Bohan, a spokeswoman for HP Hood, which has orange juice concentrate and sugared egg yolks stored at Americold. “We’re evaluating what our options are.”

Oxford Frozen Foods is doing a similar assessment.

“Our operation people are reviewing the report on the cause of the spill,” Baldwin said, “and it will make us question where we’ll store our product.”

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

akamila@pressherald.com