Tulare Co. cheese plant closing, 144 layoffs

Mozzarella Fresca is closing its Tipton plant and laying off 144 workers.Mozzarella Fresca is closing its Tipton plant and laying off 144 workers.Mozzarella Fresca in Tipton will close its Italian cheese manufacturing plant in September, laying off 144 workers. The plant, along Highway 99 south of the city of Tulare, has been in operation since 1997.

The plant is owned by Lactalis American Group, the North American division of Groupe Lactalis, the French dairy corporation regarded as the largest in the world.

Lactalis American Group has invested $40 million in a new mozzarella plant in Nampa, Idaho that has now expanded and hired new workers.

The company makes fresh mozzarella and other soft Italian cheeses under the Precious and Galbani label.
Word of the layoffs came in a notice filed with the state's Employment Development Department this week.
Last year, the company told milk supplier California Dairies, Inc. of the planned closure. The company's plant manager left Mozzarella Fresca in December to join a new start-up in Visalia.

The company announced in February 2012 that construction would start on the $40 million Nampa plant in March with a 10-month construction schedule. The new 61,000 square-foot plant would increase production from 7 million pounds currently to 40 million pounds — more than a five-fold increase. Some 70 new jobs would be added to the 40 who already work there.

Sources say the Tipton plant employed up to 200 based on the time of year. A company spokesman declined to comment.

Lactalis American Group bought Mozzarella Fresca, a California company, in 2007. At that time it was already the nation’s largest fresh mozzarella maker, according to testimony at a 2007 hearing of the California Department of Food and Agriculture discussing the price of milk in California. The state regulates the milk industry here, including the minimum price dairymen get for their milk depending on how the milk is used.

The price of milk was big issue then and may be even bigger now. Lower costs in Idaho may have made a difference here, although the Tulare County plant had been cobbled together on a small 1940s footprint. The new Idaho plant was designed from the ground up.

At that March 2007 hearing, then-Mozzarella Fresca Corporate Controller Jay Wilverding told a CDFA panel that the high price of milk in California had already caused the company to transfer some 6 percent of its cheese production to the Idaho plant, and that future investment in the small Tipton plant was in doubt because of the regulatory atmosphere in California. The company also closed a plant in Turlock.

Dairymen in California have complained bitterly in the past year that cheese makers in California pay less for their milk than out-of-state cheese makers pay their milk suppliers. Cheese makers in the state argue their overall costs are higher in California. Their trade group said that small cheese plants in California would be closing and even cited Mozzarella Fresca in testimony last year.

The Tipton plant is a relatively small facility, constrained on all sizes from expanding. It is the historic Arden creamery that has been owned by multiple parties until it was converted to make cheese under the Sequoia Cheese label for a time before being purchased and modernized by the then Concord-based Mozzarella Fresca. The company relocated production to Tulare County, the No. 1 dairy county U.S.

Now a new chapter opens for the plant, with sources saying it is likely to be sold again to a small food manufacturer.
Meanwhile, Idaho dairy plants like the one that makes Chobani yogurt are on a tear. In December 2012, Chobani opened its newest factory in Twin Falls. The company produces 4.2 million cases of yogurt a week, and now that total could be doubling. Informed sources say Chobani looked for a plant site in Tulare before deciding on Idaho.