Mice jumped out of boxes as employees packed food, and rats ran over their feet while they worked, according to the employees.
The stench of rodent urine hit workers as soon as they walked in the door, they said.
During the week-long inspection, officials with the state Department of Agriculture and U.S. Food and Drug Administration found evidence of widespread rodent infestation at Mid-States Services Inc. on U.S. Highway 29 North, which distributes food to jails and prisons throughout the country.
The evidence included 14 live and seven dead rats and rodent droppings "too numerous to count" on packages of food, according to a complaint filed Aug. 17 in U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Georgia.
"The inspectors should have stuck around because there were more than 14 rodents," said Connie Hamilton, a line worker at the distribution facility. "We pulled out one pallet that had about five nests of rodent families."
"We knew our work conditions were nasty, but we didn't know the extent of it until the FDA came in," the Watkinsville woman said. "It was so blatant I could not believe it."
Officials at Mid-States Services' corporate offices in Fort Worth, Texas, did not return calls seeking comment.
Inspectors notified the warehouse manager July 21 he had 15 days to fix violations and destroy potentially contaminated food.
Over the next two weeks, employees cleaned the warehouse and made repairs, like sealing gaps in walls where rodents could enter, Hamilton said.
"When we started cleaning up, that's when we as employees started seeing just how many nests the rodents made," she said.
Then there was the overpowering smell.
"When we pulled out insulation from the walls, it was covered with rat feces and soaked with urine, and that's when we asked management for masks to wear," she said. "We saw the FDA people with masks and glasses, so we thought, 'Do they know something we don't know?' "
Employees often complained about eye, nose and throat irritation, Hamilton said.
"We were sick all the time, and I myself got a bacterial lung infection," she said. "I don't have proof I breathed it in there, but I know my home certainly is not like that."
Bonnie Riffe of Jefferson, a former food distribution line worker who began with Mid-States Services Inc. in 2002, said living with rodents was a fact of life at the Athens warehouse.
"You would go to get food off the line and find a rat, but mainly mice, that would jump out of a box and scare you," she said. "There were rats running over our feet. This happened daily."
Hamilton and other employees complained to their manager, and his solution was to scatter a few "sticky mats," or adhesive traps, she said.
Even before inspectors arrived, Riffe and other employees volunteered their own time to clean the warehouse, where conditions became intolerable when a dead rat decomposed on the loading docks where employees took breaks, Riffe said.
"That rat laid there for so long I said, 'I can't eat with stuff like that laying around,' so I cleaned it up myself," she said. "We wanted to clean the place up, but we were told there ain't no need to because it would get right back dirty again."
Under the Georgia Food Act, the company faces a $1,000 fine for each health violation.
Officials would not say how many violations inspectors found, but according to Hamilton, the warehouse manager told employees there were 42 violations.
The company also could owe the Athens-Clarke government tens of thousands of dollars for never paying personal property taxes on inventory at the warehouse, which was not licensed, according to county Tax Commissioner Mitch Schrader.
Schrader filed a lien Monday for nearly $18,000 in unpaid taxes for this year alone, and that figure could increase significantly after officials determine how many years the firm evaded taxes, he said.
FDA and state agriculture officials would not disclose how they learned about the health violations while the investigation continues.
After the inspection, employees used foam sealant and cement to plug gaps in the 43,560-square-foot facility, and removed wood pallets from the warehouse.
Some food was destroyed, but a "significant amount" was not, according to the federal complaint.
The same day the complaint was filed, a federal judge signed an order authorizing the U.S. Marshals Service to seize and destroy $859,000 of food from the warehouse.
The warehouse cleanup abruptly stopped Aug. 11, when the manager told his 15 employees they were being laid off because Mid-States Services Inc. was shutting down the Athens facility and planned to open another one in Tennessee, employees said.
Riffe was using days off at the time, and she received a termination letter in the mail Saturday.