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Tomato Enemy No. 1 -- a scandal unfolds

February 9, 2010 |  8:29 am

Tomato Amid concerns about corrupt practices in the food industry, nine people have pleaded guilty to charges including racketeering, money laundering and bid-rigging in a federal probe of SK Foods:

To his friends, Randall Lee Rahal was just a food salesman, someone who routinely left his home on Shadyside Road in Ramsey, N.J., to crisscross the country hawking California tomatoes.

The 61-year-old sold them pureed. He sold them crushed. He sold them roasted and mashed into paste. His clients were food manufacturers, supermarket chains and other commercial buyers who turned his products into soup, ketchup and salsa.

But in the eyes of the Justice Department, Rahal was Tomato Enemy No. 1 -- a produce scofflaw who allegedly peeled off $100 bills and carried cash-stuffed envelopes to bribe buyers from leading food companies in a decade-long racketeering scheme that may have led to higher prices for consumers at the grocery store.

In a series of court filings starting in 2008, federal prosecutors in Sacramento allege that Rahal, nine others and SK Foods of Monterey, Calif., used more than $330,000 in bribes from 1998 to 2008 to subvert competition and nail down deals to sell the company's tomato paste, peppers and other products to Kraft Foods Inc., Safeway Inc., Frito-Lay North America and B&G Foods, among others.

-- P.J. Huffstutter

Read more here in today's Business section.

Photo: The conveyor belt at a tomato paste production facility. Robert Durell / Los Angeles Times

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