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Originally published March 13, 2013 at 9:51 PM | Page modified March 14, 2013 at 4:21 PM

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State closes Seattle soy plant; dirty conditions cited

A Seattle soy-food manufacturer is the first business ever to see its food-processing license revoked by the Washington State Department of Agriculture.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Persistent sanitation problems have led the state to revoke the food-processing license of a Seattle soy-food manufacturer. It’s an action the Department of Agriculture has no record of ever taking against another Washington business.

Chu Minh Corp., which distributed products throughout the Puget Sound region to Asian markets such as Uwajimaya and 99 Ranch Market, has also been fined $17,800 for health-code violations.

Pigeons, rats — both dead and alive — fecal droppings and insects were present near food during health inspections over the past year at the company’s facility at 6754 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S., according to the department. The last inspection that it failed was earlier this month.

Workers also didn’t have access to washing facilities because sinks were often filled or blocked by so much equipment that the faucets were unreachable, according to the department.

“In effect, we shut this business down, and we didn’t want to do that,” department spokesman Hector Castro said. “But, with this business, we tried several times and didn’t have any success in making them change.”

The Department of Agriculture, which grants food-processing licenses, sent Chu Minh two notices of intent to suspend its license last year after conducting health inspections in conjunction with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

An August 2012 FDA warning letter said its inspector noticed, among many violations, pigeons perched on open metal vats in which soybeans were soaking outdoors. The inspector also saw “at least 35 rodent excreta pellets under the hand-wash sink in the employee restroom.”

In 2012, Thanh-Nga “Tanya” Nguyen, who has owned Chu Minh for 15 years, was able to prevent the suspensions by signing an agreement with the state saying she would improve sanitation or face license revocation. Nguyen said her business then spent about $40,000 to improve sanitation practices. She said she was proud to tell her parents, who have run their own tofu factory in Vietnam for 30 years, that the facility received an almost-perfect health-inspection score during one inspection this winter. The Department of Agriculture confirmed the business did pass an inspection after the improvements.

“Everyone was so happy,” said Nguyen. She added she takes full responsibility for not ensuringsufficient oversight to keep things that way.

Claudia Coles, the Department of Agriculture’s administrator of compliance and outreach, said she’s determined to keep the license revoked.

“This is not a decision we came to lightly,” said Coles. She says in the past, the department has suspended licenses, not revoked them.

But Nguyen thinks it’s still possible an appeal she’s submitting might be considered. She offered an apology letter to customers and inspectors this week.

“With all my heart, I would like a second chance to take care of my customers better,” she said.

This photo of Chu Minh Tofu, at 6754 Martin Luther King Jr. Way S. in Seattle, was taken through a window. A sign said it would be closed for 10 days. (Photo by Mark Harrison / The Seattle Times)

The company manufactured soy milk, fresh tofu, fried tofu, tofu pudding and tofu syrup under the Chu Minh label. In many cases, ingredient labels were inaccurate or did not list ingredients such as sugar or trans fats, the FDA found.

Letters sent out to businesses that sold Chu Minh products ordered the sale of the products to stop March 8, the day Chu Minh’s license was revoked.

Stores in Seattle’s Chinatown International District, such as Uwajimaya, Hau-Hau Market and Viet Wah, are now selling soy products from other brands such as Seattle-based Thanh Son Tofu.

Castro, with the state Department of Agriculture, said no reports of illness have ever been connected to consuming products from the Chu Minh.

An eatery at South Jackson Street and 12th Avenue South that Nguyen owns, ChuMinh Tofu & Veggie Deli, is still open but uses tofu from other companies now, Nguyen said. Since the deli opened in October 2011, 10 of 11 Public Health — Seattle & King County inspections rated the business unsatisfactory, many times because there were inadequate hand-washing facilities.

Several deli customers contacted by phone said they’ve always thought the staff was incredibly nice, but wouldn’t return knowing what they know now.

“I know a lot of restaurants that I like have problems with the health department, but this one seems especially bad,” said Janene Song, 39, of Shoreline. “I guess I should consider myself lucky that I didn’t get sick.”

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Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or avaughn@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.

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