(May 23, 2:15 p.m.) Natural Selection Foods LLC, owner of the Earthbound Farm label, has instituted several changes and has announced the settlement of a lawsuit.

San Juan Bautista, Calif.-based Natural Selection grows more than 100 varieties of certified organic salads, fruits and vegetables on more than 40,000 acres, said Samantha Cabaluna, director of communications.

To respond to its progress, the company recently expanded and renovated the warehouse at its headquarters, allowing for safer and more efficient shipping and receiving procedures, Cabaluna said.

“It’s really to accommodate the continuing growth of the business and improve customer service and load times,” Cabaluna said of the expansion completed in April.

Dock space has increased 36%, to 30 doors, which were constructed to enable trucks to back completely into the dock before opening their doors. The new dock doors, combined with a cold barrier that now encloses the loading end of the truck, assist in upholding the cold chain throughout the loading process, Cabaluna said.

A mezzanine has been constructed for drivers to view loading away from the dock floor, enhancing driver safety, Cabaluna said.

The expansion also features a 23% increase in additional cold-storage space, bringing the facility total to 74,000 square feet, as well as a 17% increase in pallet space to allow 4,680 pallet positions for storage and order pre-staging, Cabaluna said.

Moreover, the overhead pipes, fire-control and electrical systems have been concealed by a thermo-span wall and drop ceiling, and refrigeration units have been installed on the roof for extra floor space, she said.

APPLE CASE

Natural Selection Foods on May 6 settled a lawsuit with a Carmel Valley, Calif., woman who accused an employee of plucking clippings from her heirloom apple tree in 2001, and then growing a 150-tree orchard for the firm’s profit.

Natural Selection claimed no wrongdoing, maintaining its purpose was merely preservation and not profit-driven, but agreed to provide Priscilla Higuera with a six-figure cash settlement for compensation, Cabaluna said of the case.

Under the settlement, the organic supplier also agreed to give Higuera the fall harvest of the pink-flesh apple variety, as well as uproot and move the 150 trees to a location of her choice once they become dormant in the winter, Cabaluna said.

“We were told that this tree was a rare variety in need of rescue from age and neglect, but later learned that the tree is a common heirloom,” Cabaluna said. “We acknowledge that we should not have walked on to private property or pruned the tree without permission, even if we thought our actions were saving it. We’re sorry about this mistake.”

The trees came into production for Natural Selection Foods in 2006, and the firm earned less than $1,500 from the harvest, Cabaluna said.

Higuera brought the lawsuit to court in January 2007, alleging that, in 2001, someone had cut clippings from her 75-year-old tree, the article said.

It wasn’t until October 2006, upon reading a local newspaper article that quoted Mark Marino, Carmel Valley farm manager for Natural Selection Foods, saying he had heard of a rare pink apple tree in Carmel Valley and proceeded to locate it, that Higuera perceived Marino to be at fault, the article said.

Marino initially denied the allegation to sheriff’s deputies, but later confessed his actions in a deposition for the lawsuit, the article said.

NEW HIRE

Natural Selection Foods also has hired Peyman Fatemi as its director of quality assurance, filling a position empty since Will Daniels was promoted to vice president of quality, food safety and organic integrity in 2007, Cabaluna said.

Fatemi brings a food safety background, as well as experience in microbiology, food science and pathogen detection and monitoring, Cabaluna said, and his knowledge will assist in strengthening the firm’s quality-assurance programs, Daniels said.

Previously, Fatemi served as senior research and development microbiologist for Unilever Foods NA. He earned his Ph.D. in food science and technology, with an emphasis on fruit and vegetable safety, from Pennsylvania State University in 2004.

“Peyman is a talented scientist whose microbiological expertise is a strong complement to our quality, food safety and organic integrity program,” Daniels said.

As director of quality assurance, Fatemi will manage quality-assurance programs and staff and uphold compliance of all food safety and sanitation regulations. He also will direct the creation of new food safety and quality standards and procedures, Cabaluna said.