Deadly chopped celery contaminated with Listeria monocytogenes was traced back Wednesday to Sangar Fresh Cut Produce in San Antonio, and the company was ordered to stop processing food and recall all products shipped since January.
The order came from the Texas Department of State Health Services, which acted under a Lone Star state law that gives DSHS the power to take such action when there is “an immediate and serious threat to human life.”
Five deaths in Texas appear to be associated with chopped celery contaminated with Listeria.
The order to shutdown Sanger was issued after laboratory tests of chopped celery from the plant indicated the presence of Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that can cause severe illnesses, stillbirths, and death.
The recalled products – primarily cut fresh produce in sealed packages – were distributed to restaurants and institutional entities, such as hospitals and schools. The products were not sold in grocery stores.
The testing was done as part of a DSHS investigation into 10 listeriosis cases, including five deaths, reported to the department over an eight-month period.
Six of the 10 cases have been linked to chopped celery from the Sangar plant. The illnesses occurred in Bexar, Travis and Hidalgo counties.
All of the people sickened had serious underlying health problems.
Texas health officials said pinpointing a Listeria source is often difficult due to the small number of cases, the illness’s long incubation period and difficulty in collecting complete, detailed information about what people ate.
DSHS inspectors also found sanitation issues at the plant and believe the Listeria found in the chopped celery may have contaminated other food produced there.
The department found a condensation leak above a food product area, soil on a preparation table and hand washing issues.
DSHS food safety personnel are contacting distributors, restaurants and institutions believed to have received the recalled products to ensure they are taking appropriate action to protect consumers.
DSHS continues to investigate possible sources of contamination and where the products were distributed. Sangar’s customers are advised to discard or return the products. Cooking the products is not recommended.
Symptoms of listeriosis can include fever, muscle aches, diarrhea and vomiting. People with these symptoms should consult a physician. Symptoms typically occur three to 70 days after exposure. The disease affects primarily older people, pregnant women, newborns and people with weakened immune systems.
The order prohibits the plant from reopening without DSHS approval.
In one San Antonio directory, Sanger is listed as “a federally certified produce processing company, certified by the U.S. Military, Primas Lab, and Cook & Thurber. Sanger specializes in fresh cut salads, onions, tomatoes, bell peppers, and various other produce items.
As recently as August, Sanger owners told a San Antonio television station they wanted tougher standards for the produce industry. Sanger, they said, was one of only two companies certified to sell processed produce in the city.
“All we’re saying is everyone should have that standard,” owner Kenneth Sanquist said. “There is an entire process that we have to follow on a daily basis, if you miss a step or two steps or try to take a short cut…children could get very sick.”