April 8, 2010

Leak leaves businesses out in the cold

Dozens of them are stretched financially as their embargoed products sit in frozen storage.

By Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

 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.

click image to enlarge

Portland Lt. Mike Nixon uses a sensor to check ammonia levels behind a door leading to the room at Americold Logistics where a large cooling unit fell from the ceiling Jan. 22. Steve Brezinski of the Maine DEP stands by as he waits to enter the room.

Photo by Portland Capt. Mike Sargent


Items embargoed at Americold Logistics since Feb. 10, and their owners:

A&R Halal, Lewiston: Camel cube, camel rump, goat livers, beef knuckle and goat meat
Allen’s Blueberry Freezer, Ellsworth: Wild blueberries and wild sweet blueberries
Bristol Seafood, Portland: Cod, halibut, scallops, dry scallops and whole haddock
Coastside Bio Resources, Stonington: Dried sea cucumber flowers, guts and meat
Cozy Harbor Seafood, Portland: Chowder fish, whole cooked shrimp, minced lobster meat and minced lobster body meat
Caswell’s Liquidation Center, Waterville: Smoked rope beef sausage, California vegetables, chicken biscuit, pepperoni pizza, sausage and onion pizza, mixed pot pies, chicken quesadilla, chicken nuggets and battered fish fillets
Eastern Traders, Nobleboro: Herring bait
Great Northern Products, Warwick, R.I.: Flounder fillets
Hannaford Bros., Scarborough: Turkeys
HP Hood, Portland: Orange juice concentrate and sugared egg yolks
Immucell Corp., Portland: Frozen milk
I.S.F. Trading, Portland: Eel meat, fish bait, slime eels, herring bait and tuna bone bait
Morrison’s Maine Course, Portland: Clam chowder, haddock chowder, lobster stew and seafood chowder
North Atlantic Inc., Portland: Haddock, crabmeat, sole, turbot, wild salmon and tuna steaks
Pack Edge, Portland: Gel pack ice
PCD Inc., Portland: Tomatoes, raspberries, garlic, onions, peach chips, jalapenos, cranberry puree, cut corn, blueberries, mangos, shallots and diced apples
Penobscot Frozen Foods, Belfast: Potato skins, stuffed potatoes, potato wedges, mashed potatoes and baked potatoes
Portland Shellfish, Portland: Crab legs in shell and whole lobster claws
Propak Frozen Foods, Delray Beach, Fla.: Beef steak, beef patties, pork chops, chicken, pork and seafood variety pack
Oxford Frozen Foods, Canada: Blueberries and whole cranberries
RW Meats, Bloomington, Minn.: Camel chuck, goat carcass, mutton leg and steer knuckles
S&M Fisheries, Kennebunkport: Raw tuna
Salty Bay Takeout, Scarborough: Clam cakes
Sunchase Foods, Freemont Hills, Mo.: Variety packs of seafood, beef, chicken and pork
Sunrise County, Cherryfield: Blueberries
United States Lobster Co., Gorham: Bighead frames, fish heads, herring, rockfish, split heads, tuna head, tuna nape and walleye heads

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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