Fresh from a federal antitrust investigation and in the midst of a recall of some of its potato products, a Minnetonka-based company has landed in another food fight, this one over a new plant it's building in Chaska.
Michael Foods, owners of Minneapolis-based Northern Star Co., is facing opposition from some neighbors who worry that Northern's new $60 million potato-processing plant on track to open in Chaska late this year or early next might bring odor, traffic and water-usage problems to the southwest suburb.
Michael Foods officials assured Chaska City Council members last month that those issues would not become problems. But not everyone is convinced, especially after a TV news report detailed a history of sanitation and odor problems at the company's Minneapolis plant, which will close sometime after the new plant opens.
"Everyone has some concern," said Chaska resident Bruce Perkins. "We live behind the plant. We're a residential area, supposedly a green space."
A recent WCCO-TV report, drawing on government inspection reports and a confidential informant, highlighted years of sanitation problems at the Minneapolis plant, including reports of cockroaches, mold and Listeria on the premises.
Amy Rotenberg, a spokeswoman for Northern, said those issues go back a number of years and have been attended to by the company.
She and other company officials acknowledge the odor problems in Minneapolis that have led to thousands of dollars in fines. But they said the problems are caused by the age of the plant and the method used to skin and blanche 200 million potatoes a year.
"We're building a state-of-the-art facility" in Chaska, Rotenberg said. "We don't anticipate having any odor problems whatsoever in Chaska."
The questions have arisen at a time when the Minnesota Department of Agriculture (MDA) is close to finishing a two-year investigation into what the company describes as maintenance issues at the Minneapolis plant. "We are working closely with MDA," Rotenberg said. "We always do."
Last month, Northern Star Co. voluntarily began recalling tons of its Simply Potato items after Listeria bacteria was found in a lab sample.
U.S. ends antitrust probe
That discovery came about the same time that Michael Foods announced that the U.S. Department of Justice had closed an antitrust investigation against the company without indictments or charges.
The antitrust investigation of Michael, which also manufactures egg products, began last March. Michael Foods and other egg-product companies were served with subpoenas as the government sought information on the pricing, marketing and sale of egg products, the company said.
"I wouldn't say that the company is under siege or anything like that," Rotenberg said. "Our company is focused. ... Unfortunately, there is an environment going on right now where a lot of questions are being asked about how good government food regulators [are] in doing their job."
Rotenberg said Northern, which has operated its Minneapolis plant for about 30 years, has never had a reported instance of someone getting sick from bacteria in its products, which include refrigerated potatoes and hash browns.
400 jobs for Chaska
The relocation of the plant will mean an additional 400 jobs for Chaska. In exchange, the city will help the company apply for up to $300,000 in low-interest loans and also help it reduce its water usage costs.
City Administrator Matt Podhradsky said Chaska officials were aware of the odor issues at the Minneapolis plant but were not aware of the state investigation. He said the city is confident that the odor problems will be taken care of by the company, which is offering to give residents tours of its new facility.
The company's issues with the state and Minneapolis are out of Chaska's jurisdiction, Podhradsky said. The permitting process and inspections the city would conduct at the plant would limit any problems at the Chaska plant, he added.
"That's something we take very seriously -- what kind of issues might this have for neighbors," Podhradsky said. "They've said their Minneapolis plant is very old and that's why they're moving into a new plant. The issues inside the plant ... that's something that is being monitored very closely by the state and should not be an issue here.
"We felt very comfortable after we had talked to them."
Heron Marquez Estrada • 612-673-4280