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Texas shuts down produce plant, orders recalls of celery tied to Listeria outbreak

Celery First, it was contaminated meat. Then it was contaminated eggs. Now, it's celery.

The Texas Department of State Health Services has ordered a San Antonio produce processing plant to halt operations and launch a widespread recall after laboratory tests found Listeria monocytogenes in packages of chopped celery sold to hospitals, restaurants and schools.

State officials said Wednesday that the recall includes all products that SanGar Produce & Processing Co. shipped from the facility since January. Though the Fresh Cut Produce products were not sold directly to the public, investigators said they had linked tainted celery to at least six cases of listeriosis.

The state's investigation into the company's factory was prompted by a spate of 10 such cases -– including five deaths -– reported to the department over the last eight months.

State officials noted that the bacterium can cause severe illness, with symptoms that include fever, muscle aches, diarrhea and vomiting. It can also take a long time for consumers to get sick: Symptoms can occur three to 70 days after exposure. The disease affects primarily older people, pregnant women, newborns and people with weakened immune systems.

In a statement, state officials said inspectors believe that the contamination may have expanded into other packaged fruits and vegetables, in part because they found at the plant “a condensation leak above a food product area, soil on a preparation table and hand-washing issues.”

(The firm's product lines are sold, either directly or via third-party distributors, to companies in Texas and Oklahoma. State health officials in Oklahoma reportedly are also looking into the food recall and whether it may have impacted any residents.)

The company defended its safety record on its website, which said that it has "state-of-the-art sanitizing equipment and rigorous procedures that our personnel must follow in order to ensure that all of our products are fresh, healthy and safe for our customers."

SanGar officials could not be reached for comment on Thursday morning. However, according to a report by the Associated Press, company President Kenneth Sanquist Jr. said he believes that the state's findings were wrong.

"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 told AP. "This independent testing shows our produce to be absolutely safe, and we are aggressively fighting the state's erroneous findings."

-- P.J. Huffstutter

Photo credit: Bryan Chan / Los Angeles Times

 
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