No growers and just one processor are the focus of the Texas investigation of listeria cases that led to this week’s closure of San Antonio-based Sangar Fresh-Cut Produce, state health officials said Oct. 22.
Ten cases, five of them fatal, were reported in Bexar, Travis and Hidalgo counties from January to August. Six of the illnesses and four deaths have been linked to contaminated fresh-cut celery from Sangar’s plant, Department of State Health Services press officer Carrie Williams said.
“The 10 are somehow related to each other but connecting it back to the plant we’ve only been able to do in the six cases,” Williams said. “We went down a number of roads but all the clues led to this plant,” Williams said. “This is a plant-specific issue. The problem is with the processing plant and not with any grower.”
Sangar has been ordered to recall all products shipped since January. The company deals in a variety of vegetables and fruits.
“With four deaths traced back directly to this facility, we had no choice but to order the plant to close and issue a recall to protect the public,” Williams said.
The recalled products, mostly fresh-cut produce in sealed packages, were distributed through foodservice channels to restaurants, hospitals and schools. They are not believed to have been sold at retail, according to the Williams.
All of the illnesses affected people with serious underlying health problems.
The Oct. 20 order was issued after samples of chopped celery from the plant tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes.
Sangar officials have not responded to interview requests, but company president Kenneth Sanquist Jr. told the Associated Press he blames state inspectors’ sampling techniques for linking Sangar to the outbreak. The sample at the plant, Sanquist said, appears to have been taken by someone not wearing proper lab attire and gloves, and was transported in a nonrefrigerated container.
“We question the validity of the state’s lab results,” Sanquist said in the statement to the AP.
Williams said inspectors did the sampling properly.
“We stand by our analysis and our lab results,” she said. “We know that the samples were properly collected and stored. Our employees are well-trained. The product was kept cool and well refrigerated. We would not have ordered a company to close and recall this wide volume of product had we not been certain about what we found.”
The order prohibits the Sangar plant from reopening without DSHS approval.
Texas inspectors also found sanitation issues at the plant and believe the listeria found in the chopped celery may have contaminated other food produced there, according to the DSHS. Findings included 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.
Sangar’s customers are advised to discard or return the products.