Nut-and-candy company hopes move to Timonium prevents halt of operations

Jeppi blames insects, rats on city construction

March 10, 2003|By Josh Mitchell | Josh Mitchell,SUN STAFF

The owners of Jeppi Nut Co., a household name among nut and candy lovers in Baltimore for 119 years, say they are confident their store's move to Timonium will prevent a federal court from halting the company's operations.

Such a move was threatened when the Food and Drug Administration filed a complaint Feb. 5 stemming from a federal report of rodent and insect infestation. Rather than renovate their aged facility at 312 N. High St., as suggested by the FDA, the company's owners will spend the next two weeks moving to a newer building near Interstate 83 in Timonium.

"We believe that the move to Timonium will correct the problems the FDA identified," said Meredith Manning, the company's attorney. "We hope the agency will agree that our corrective action has been completed."

In the complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Baltimore, FDA officials allege that the company's owners had ignored warnings to correct problems. An FDA warning letter dated March 23, 2001, informed the company of 12 examples of unsanitary conditions, including live and dead rodents, gnawed bags of food and signs of rodent nesting.

Yesterday, a co-owner of Jeppi blamed the sanitation problems on the constant city construction near the facility in the Oldtown section of downtown Baltimore.

"When you disturb what's underneath the ground, you disturb the nesting," said Marina Lillie, 41, whose family bought the company in 1974. "We stand by our product 100 percent."

Lillie said her store, where the nuts are processed and sold, passed an inspection by the city Health Department last month.

Manning said she will meet with representatives from the U.S. Department of Justice and the FDA this week to attempt to reach an agreement on how the company will be monitored.

Representatives of the U.S. attorney's office in Baltimore could not be reached for comment.

As attorneys sort out the legal issues, the company's owners and 12 employees are torn about the idea of moving out of the city, where the company has operated since the four Jeppi brothers founded it in 1884. It moved to its current location in the early 1970s.

"It's heart-wrenching in the sense that you've been here for so many years," Lillie said. "People come in and say this is the last of old Baltimore."

The shop is known for its variety of nuts, and customers can watch as nuts roast in three large ovens in the back of the store.

One customer said last week that he has bought nuts from the company for 28 years and has never experienced a problem.

"First and foremost, the quality is very good," said Paul Datta, 57. "And the prices are better than anywhere in Baltimore."

Lillie said the company has not seen a drop in sales since the FDA complaint.

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