A former food-industry executive armed with the secret to the "nooks and crannies" in Thomas' English muffins displayed "suspicious conduct" before his planned move to rival Hostess Brands Inc., a U.S. appeals court in Philadelphia said in upholding a ban on the move.

Chris Botticella of Trabuco Canyon, Calif., remains barred from starting the Hostess job while a trade-secret lawsuit filed by Thomas' parent company, Bimbo Bakeries USA, plays out. Bimbo Bakeries is based in Horsham.

Botticella is one of just seven people worldwide who know the recipe and manufacturing process that give Thomas' English muffins their trademark "nooks and crannies," according to Bimbo.

"A number of the files accessed from Botticella's laptop during his final days at Bimbo were highly sensitive and their possession by a competitor would have been damaging to Bimbo," Senior Judge Morton I. Greenberg of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit wrote this week, upholding a decision by a lower court.

Courts must balance a company's right to guard trade secrets against an employee's right to switch jobs, the Third Circuit said.

In this case, the three-judge panel in Philadelphia agreed with a lower-court judge that Botticella - who had declined to testify at the preliminary injunction hearing - should be banned from Hostess temporarily.

The case now goes back to U.S. District Judge R. Barclay Surrick in Philadelphia for further findings.

Forensic tests run on Botticella's computer show he accessed cost-cutting strategies, product launch dates, planned plant and line closures, labor-contract information, and other strategic information after accepting the Hostess job in late 2009.

Botticella was vice president of Bimbo's operations in the Western United States, earning $250,000 a year.

He said he had grown frustrated by the job, so he agreed to a Houston-based job with Hostess that paid $200,000 plus bonuses. But he told Bimbo he was retiring and stayed on for several months.