A Texas Pecan Processor is Suing Over Nuts Contaminated by Rodent Droppings

George Martin and Marty Harrell used to be friends. They live 800 miles apart but swim in the same professional circles, the former heading Corsicana-based Navarro Pecan Company, one of the world's largest pecan-processing companies, and the latter in charge of the Harrell Nut Company, which shells and sells pecans for growers.

So neither had any reservations when their respective companies signed a $2.5 million agreement for Harrell to shell, then return, 4.5 million pounds of Navarro's pecans.

The relevant part of the agreement was a provision stipulating that the shelled nuts must be "free from every contamination, including extraneous material, infestation, and foreign objects/flavors/odors."

According to a lawsuit filed by Navarro in federal court on Thursday, workers immediately discovered that wasn't the case.

"More specifically," the lawsuit alleges, "the boxes contained, among other things, fragments of pecan shells, Brazil nuts, peanuts, sunflower seeds, chinaberries, stems, and rodent droppings."

Another shipment that arrived in September 2011 contained "excessive" levels of coliform, a bacteria present in human and animal feces. Harrell suggested Navarro "gas" the pecans (the Grocery Manufacturers Association's Industry Handbook for Safe Processing of Nuts mentions propylene oxide as the preferred method) and offered to pay the $5,600 bill.

But Harrell didn't pay the bill, and Navarro had larger worries, namely more than a million pounds of contaminated pecans that still had to sorted and repackaged to remove foreign nuts, which could pose an allergy risk to unsuspecting pecan eaters, and rodent shit, which carries its own health concerns.

The cost of the cleanup was $1.2 million, which Navarro paid on top of the $2.3 million it had already shelled out to Harrell. It finally began letting about $150,000 in invoices accumulate, which is when things got personal.

"My understanding is that Marty Harrell has a long relationship with you," Harrell's attorney, Lauren Brock, wrote Martin in a March 2012 letter. "He values that relationship and thought that it was mutual. It is disturbing to our client to have emails in which you are stated to have questioned HNC's motivation and specifically attributed it to an intention to 'destroy Navarro's reputation.'"

Brock called the accusations "unfortunate" and "inaccurate" and insisted that Harrell's performance had been "complete, commercially reasonable, and consistent with its normal standards of service."

"Some of the complaints that Navarro has were completely unreasonable and certainly not not properly addressed at HNC," she added. "For example, there were things allegedly found in the product by Navarro that simply could not have come from HNC because they are not processed at this plant," rat shit presumably topping that list.

Brock proceeded to demand full payment of the overdue invoices, promising to tack on an 18-percent annual finance charge, applied monthly. There's been a stalemate ever since.

How the dispute will be resolved isn't clear. All that's guaranteed at this point is that a lot of people will wonder if there's something besides Karo syrup in that pecan pie.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson