MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) – Publicity from a salmonella outbreak has put a West Virginia produce company out of business, even though inspections found no trace of the bacteria at the plant.

Company officials at Wheeling-based Coronet Foods met Friday with the plant’s 220 employees to begin helping them find other jobs.

The closure comes more than three months after 400 people in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Maryland fell ill because they ate sandwiches with contaminated tomatoes at Sheetz convenience stores. Coronet was a supplier to Sheetz, but officials still do not know where the tomatoes became contaminated.

Coronet’s business declined after the outbreak, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in August found no evidence of salmonella at the company’s facility.

“There was a thorough inspection. The results were in compliance in every aspect of our business,” Coronet Chief Executive Officer Ernie Pascua said Friday.

Following the salmonella outbreak, Sheetz dropped Coronet’s services, and the company’s sales plummeted by 40 percent. Pascua is still trying to broker a deal that would keep the company afloat but has so far been unsuccessful.

“We had been taking some tremendous financial hits, and we could not surface any further,” Pascua said. “We were basically waiting until the 11th hour for some financing that might have come through, but unfortunately did not.”

Attorneys representing people who were sickened said the FDA inspection does not mean Coronet has been cleared. Bill Marler, an attorney representing 107 victims, said he planned to pursue three lawsuits against Coronet.

Pascua said he is confident the company will be cleared when the FDA finishes tracing all the vegetables back to their source.

On the Net:

AP-ES-10-22-04 1529EDT

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