A feud between two major players in California’s $2.6-billion pistachio business is embroiling the county of Fresno, which has now become the target of a lawsuit filed by one of the firms.
Wonderful Co., a leading pistachio processor and distributor owned by Beverly Hills food and drink magnates Stewart and Lynda Resnick, is suing the county over efforts by the Assemi family to build its own pistachio processing plant. The Assemi family has sold its nuts to Wonderful for years, but now it is poised to become a competitor.
Wonderful’s suit, filed this week in Superior Court in Fresno, alleges that the county has illegally issued construction permits to the Assemis. Permits should be revoked and construction should halt because the planned structures did not undergo required reviews to make sure they would comply with state environmental laws, the suit says.
Fresno County “has continued to process additional approvals for the facility in violation of CEQA,” or the California Environmental Quality Act, the suit alleges. The suit also says the Assemis built some structures without any permits.
County spokesman Jordan Scott declined to comment Thursday afternoon, saying that the county’s lawyers were still reviewing the suit.
Jennifer Reisz, general counsel for the Assemi company Maricopa Orchards, said in a statement that Wonderful’s suit “is meritless and we believe we have done all of the necessary environmental reviews.”
The Assemis’ project would be the “single largest pistachio processing facility in the world,” the suit says. According to the suit, it includes more than 300,000 square feet of buildings, 240 silos and more than 1 million gallons of water tanks, and it’s located in an unincorporated area of Fresno County between Interstate 5 and state Highway 33.
Tensions between the Assemis and the Resnicks flared this year after the Assemis’ plan to build the facility became known.
According to a lawsuit the Assemi family filed against Wonderful in September, Stewart Resnick told Kevin Assemi, chief executive of the family’s farming operations, during a January meeting: “I am going to destroy you and make sure you fail so that no grower ever leaves and tries to make it on their own processing and marketing.”
Wonderful then allegedly backpedaled on a promise to pay the Assemis a 30% bonus for their 2019 crop, saying the bonus was contingent on the Assemis agreeing to provide their 2020 crop to Wonderful, the September suit says.
Wonderful called that suit “completely frivolous.”
California is one of the world’s largest producers of pistachios, and the nuts are one of the state’s largest crops, accounting for $2.62 billion in cash receipts for farms in 2018, according to the state Department of Food and Agriculture.
Wonderful’s suit seeks to block Fresno County from issuing additional permits for the Assemi processing plant and to force the county to rescind some existing permits, “until such time that all required environmental review is completed in compliance with CEQA.”
Wonderful spokesman Mark Carmel said in a statement that “everyone who cares about protecting our region’s environment should be concerned” about the project because construction has begun “even though no environmental review has been conducted and no planning approvals issued.”
Wonderful markets several products beyond pistachios. The company sells mandarin oranges under the Halo brand and pomegranate juice as Pom Wonderful, and it controls Fiji Water, Justin Vineyards and the florist delivery service Teleflora, among other brands.