Ketchup maker Heinz will close its processing plant in Leamington, Ont. next year, putting more than 700 full-time employees out of work.

The company announced Thursday that it will close the plant in mid-2014. Heinz is the biggest employer in Leamington, a town of about 28,000 people dubbed the “tomato capital of Canada.”

In addition to 740 full-time employees, the plant also employs hundreds of seasonal and migrant workers during the tomato harvesting season.

The plant has been operating in the town for more than 100 years.

"We reached this decision after thoroughly exploring extensive alternatives and options," Heinz spokesperson Michael Mullen said in an email.

"Heinz fully appreciates and regrets the impact our decision will have on employees and the communities in which these factories are located."

The plant closure will have a ripple effect on tomato growers in the region. Some of them have been supplying Heinz for generations.

Leamington Mayor John Patterson and Sandra Pupatello, Ontario’s former industry and trade minister, addressed the stunned community Thursday afternoon.

An emotional Patterson said he has asked all levels of government for help.

“Generations have grown up with ties to this company,” he said.

“In all that time the Heinz Company has been a corporate citizen, to be mayor in this historic moment… it’s very difficult.”

Jeff Couture, who works at the plant, said Heinz has been the lifeblood of Leamington.

“Half the people that live in Leamington work at Heinz and supply Heinz with materials and stuff,” he told CTV Windsor.  “(The closure) is going to be devastating for Leamington itself.”

Julia Pippo, whose parents work at the plant, told CTV News Channel that families like hers will be hard hit by the shutdown.

Pippo said she and her sister rely heavily on their parents to support their education.

“This is going to be rough,” she said.

The municipality’s tax revenues will also take a big hit – Heinz pays the town about $1 million in property taxes each year.

In a statement, the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party called the factory closure a “tragedy” and criticized the Liberal government for having “no plan for jobs, no plan for the economy and no plan to help families.”

Later Thursday, Ontario’s Minister of Economic Development Eric Hoskins said he was “extremely disappointed” to hear of the plant’s closure, noting that area workers and businesses have “made a very significant contribution to Heinz and to Heinz’s financial success for many years.”

Hoskins suggested a proposed federal review of standardized container sizes “has not helped the business environment,” and could make Ontario “less attractive” to both existing and potential investors. He said he will raise the issue with his federal counterpart, but meanwhile would offer the government’s support to Leamington’s residents.

“Our government is ready and willing to offer support and resources to affected workers at this difficult time,” Hoskins said in a statement. “I will also ensure that Leamington and the surrounding area are taking full advantage of regional economic development programs and other provincial supports.”  

H.J. Heinz Company was purchased earlier this year by U.S. billionaire Warren Buffett’s conglomerate Berkshire Hathaway and a Brazilian investment firm.

Last month, fast food giant McDonald’s said it would end its 40-year relationship with Heinz because the ketchup maker’s new president is a former CEO of Burger King.

Heinz is also closing its manufacturing plants in South Carolina and Idaho, which will eliminate more than 600 U.S. jobs.

With files from CTV Windsor and The Canadian Press