By Keith Lawrence, Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.
Dec. 13–Unilever Foods North America will close its tomato processing plant in Merced, Calif., on June 30 and transfer the West Coast production of Ragu and Bertolli sauces to the company’s Owensboro plant.
Tomato paste production, now at Merced, will be transferred to Unilever’s Stockton, Calif., plant, the company said.
The Merced plant processes 250 tons of tomatoes an hour.
The move is good for the Owensboro plant — even though it means no new jobs, said Paul Altimier, plant manager.
When the Merced plant closes, Owensboro will be the only place in the United States where Ragu and Bertolli sauces are made, he said.
“We have excess capacity at this plant,” Altimier said. “We can absorb the added production without needing new employees.”
That’s good for Unilever because the Merced plant has 124 full-time workers and 228 seasonal employees.
The Merced Sun-Star reported that Unilever workers there make between $11 and $24 an hour with “a good benefits package.”
Company officials called the Merced closure a “necessary step in the business’ strategy to attain greater operating efficiencies to become more competitive in the marketplace,” the Sun-Star reported.
The Merced plant opened in 1974 — one year before the Owensboro plant.
Altimier said the move will add 4 million cases of sauce a year — 48 million jars — to the Owensboro plant’s output.
While that sounds like a lot, the plant is currently producing 1 million jars of sauce a day — 365 million a year. Production continues around the clock 365 days a year.
The consolidated production will mean more than 410 million jars produced in Owensboro each year.
The 600,000-square-foot plant, which employs 465 people, is the size of 20 football fields. It is billed as “the largest spaghetti sauce factory in the world.”
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