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Tainted Celery Sickens at Least 6 in Texas; 4 Die

posted on October 22, 2010

SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Texas health officials have shut down a processing plant linked to contaminated celery that sickened at least six people this year, four of whom died, and ordered the recall of all of the produce that has passed through the plant since January.

SanGar Produce & Processing Co. issued the recall Wednesday after its plant in San Antonio was closed down. The Texas Department of State Health Services traced six of 10 known cases of listeriosis in the state during an eight-month period to celery processed there. The agency is investigating the origins of the other four cases, which include one death.

Of the 10 cases that the state is investigating, two were in Travis County. Both were adults, said Department of State Health Services spokeswoman Carrie Williams.

Carole Barasch, spokeswoman for the Austin/Travis County Health and Human Services Department, said one of the cases in Travis County occurred in March and the other was in May. Both people recovered, Barasch said.

Health inspectors found problems with sanitation at the plant, including a condensation leak over a food production area. The health department is trying to determine whom the now-recalled produce was sold to and whether it was used in other products. The agency recommends that customers throw out or return all SanGar products.

Williams said Thursday that the state asked the company to close voluntarily but it refused.

Kenneth Sanquist Jr., the company's president, said in a statement Thursday that the state used flawed methods to collect its samples. The sample at the plant "appears" to have been taken by someone not wearing proper lab attire and proper gloves and was transported in a unrefrigerated container, he said.

Williams said the agency stands by its analysis and lab results.

Health officials are trying to determine how much potentially tainted produce has passed through the plant since January. Some of the celery was grown in California, but there appeared to be no problem with it until it reached the SanGar plant, Williams said.

Health officials said the produce was sold to restaurants, schools and hospitals, but they don't think it was sold in grocery stores.

"We know their customers include schools and hospitals. It was absolutely crucial that we protect these populations," Williams said.

Aside from those in Travis County, the 10 people who contracted listeriosis were in Bexar and Hidalgo counties. Williams said the agency had no information that the recalled produce — which also includes lettuce, pineapple and honeydew — were distributed outside Texas.

All 10 people who contracted the disease in Texas already had underlying serious health problems, the health department said.

Tags: diseases food food safety news Texas