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ConAgra to Close Hunt-Wesson Food Cannery in O.C., One of Region’s Last

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hunt-Wesson Inc. said Friday that it will close its historic Hunt Foods tomato processing plant in Fullerton, one of Southern California’s largest remaining food canneries, laying off 325 full-time workers and eliminating 450 seasonal canning jobs.

The 62-year-old Fullerton plant was the late billionaire Norton Simon’s first food-processing business, which he grew into the multibillion-dollar Hunt-Wesson powerhouse. He used proceeds from what became the world’s largest tomato processing operation to assemble his renowned art collection.

The shutdown is part of parent ConAgra Inc.'s recently announced plan to lay off 6,500 of its 90,000 workers in a major restructuring of the nation’s second-largest food company.

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The closing of the Hunt plant adds to the woes of a canning industry in Southern California that has been declining for two decades. The seafood canning business on Terminal Island, for example, has lost most of its canneries and the thousands of workers there.

Total employment in the state’s fruit and vegetable canning industry has held relatively steady in the last two decades at about 50,000, but the work has continued to shift to the Central Valley, closer to the foods’ source, analysts said.

The Fullerton plant, which is scheduled to be closed next year, became a victim of Orange County’s urbanization. Executives said it no longer made sense to keep an operation that was next door to thousands of homes, saddled with expensive environmental control requirements and miles from the nearest tomato fields.

Other units of ConAgra’s Fullerton-based ConAgra Grocery Products Co. subsidiary, which includes the Hunt-Wesson operations, will not be affected.

ConAgra Grocery employs about 2,000 workers in Orange County.

Industry analysts said the relatively light hit in Orange County was not surprising. Most of the cutbacks were expected to fall on the conglomerate’s troubled frozen foods units in the East and Midwest. In addition to the Fullerton tomato processing plant, Hunt-Wesson also will close a 230-employee can-making factory in Hayward, Calif., and a 33-worker peanut shelling operation in Georgia that serves its Peter Pan peanut butter processing plant there.

The Fullerton plant began in the late 1920s as an orange juice processing facility that went bankrupt.

In 1931, the Fullerton plant was acquired by Los Angeles entrepreneur Norton Simon, then 36, for $7,000. Simon turned it into a $9-million-a-year company and in 1943 used proceeds from his orange juice business to acquire a San Francisco-based tomato processing business, Hunt Bros. Packing Co.

He moved the headquarters to Fullerton, turned the plant into a tomato processing operation and changed the name to Hunt Foods..

Simon acquired Wesson Co. in the early 1950s and merged the vegetable oil processor with the food company to form Hunt-Wesson Foods Inc., a company that became the foundation of Simon’s Norton Simon Industries.

Hunt-Wesson’s ownership remained stable for the next 40 years, until Chicago-based Esmark acquired Norton Simon Industries in 1983. Several ownership changes quickly followed until Omaha-based ConAgra acquired Hunt-Wesson.

Times staff writer Don Lee and researcher Janice L. Jones contributed to this report.


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