Tainted celery sickens at least 6 in Texas; 4 die - KFDA - NewsChannel 10 / Amarillo News, Weather, Sports

Tainted celery sickens at least 6 in Texas; 4 die

By PAUL J. WEBER and BETSY BLANEY Associated Press Writer

SAN ANTONIO — 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 passed through the plant since January.

SanGar Produce & Processing Co. issued the recall Wednesday after its plant in San Antonio was shuttered. 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.

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 who 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.

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

"They refused, so we shut them down and ordered a recall," she said.

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 non refrigerated container, he said.

"We question the validity of the state's lab results," Sanquist said, adding that the company offered use of a refrigerated container but the state declined.

Williams said the agency stands by it's analysis and lab results.

"Our experts are well-trained and pull samples according to protocal," she said. "We would not have taken this serious action had we not been certain."

Health officials are trying to determine how much potentially tainted produce passed through the plant since January and whether it could have ended up in other products. 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 the produce was sold to restaurants, schools and hospitals, but that they don't believe 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.

The 10 people who contracted listeriosis were in Bexar, Travis and Hidalgo counties, in central and southern parts of the state. Williams said the agency has no information so far that the recalled produce — which also includes lettuce, pineapple and honeydew — were distributed outside of Texas.

"We know other products are chopped at the plant on the same line," Williams said.

On its website, SanGar says that "indirectly through several of our customers, our products are distributed in the Rio Grande Valley, Houston, Dallas and Oklahoma."

There have been three reported cases of listeriosis in Oklahoma this year, but the state is not aware of any cases connected to the recall, Oklahoma State Department of Health spokesman Larry Weatherford said.

"We have not seen an increase related to this recall," Weatherford said.

In an earlier statement, Sanquist Jr. defended the company's safety record.

"The state's claim that some of our produce now fails to meet health standards directly contradicts independent testing that was conducted on the same products," Sanquist said in a statement. "This independent testing shows our produce to be absolutely safe, and we are aggressively fighting the state's erroneous findings."

Sanquist declined to comment to The Associated Press on Thursday and referred all questions to the Uresti Law Firm, which did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

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

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 500 people die of listeriosis each year in the U.S., and about 2,500 people become seriously ill.

Those with weaker immune systems — including pregnant women, young children, the elderly and those battling serious illness — are most at risk of becoming seriously ill or dying because of listeriosis, the CDC says. Healthy adults and children occasionally are infected with the disease but rarely become seriously ill.

The health department prohibited SanGar from reopening the plant without agency approval.

Williams said the agency found "relatively minor sanitation" issues during a routine inspection last year but took no action. She said the company assured the agency it would correct the issues.

SanGar has been licensed by the state since May 2008, Williams said.

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Blaney reported from Lubbock. Associated Press writers Ken Miller in Oklahoma City, Okla., and Diana Heidgerd in Dallas contributed to this report.

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