5 listeria deaths in Texas: 4 linked to celery at now-closed plant

Four deaths Five listeria deaths conntected to San Antonio planthave been linked to celery prepared at a plant in San Antonio, prompting Texas officials to shut down the operation.

All of Sangar Fresh Cut Produce's was products made since January were recalled after the Texas Department of State Health Services linked the plant to 10 cases of listeria infection.

The plant was ordered closed Wednesday after lab tests of chopped celery processed there tested positive for Listeria monocytogenes, a bacterium that can cause a severe and, sometimes, fatal illness.

The tests were done as part of the Texas health officials' probe into the 10 cases that were reported over an eight-month period. Six of the 10 cases have been linked to chopped celery from the plant. The state said all of the cases were in people with existing health problems. Four of the people in the six cases linked to the plant died. A fifth person also died, but that death has not be attributed to the celery.

Sangar Produce President Kenneth Sanquist took issue with the test results and the way the tests were conducted. He said the plant hasn't failed any previous state inspections.

In a statement, he said:

"SANGAR has never failed a prior state inspection of our facilities or our products... We question the validity of the state's lab results. It appears as though the sample collected by the state was obtained by an individual not wearing proper lab attire, proper gloves, etc. and transported in a nonrefrigerated container. The state's own document indicates there was a delay of more than 30 hours in the testing of the nonrefrigerated sample, thus calling into question the viability of the state's lab results. ... SANGAR's independent testing by a nationally-recognized laboratory, Quanta Lab, revealed no presence of listeria on SANGAR's produce. The state's claim that some of our produce now fails to meet health standards directly contradicts the independent testing performed by Quanta Lab."

Texas health officials said the recalled products -- mostly cut, fresh produce in sealed packages -- were distributed at restaurants and institutions like hospitals and schools. The agency doesn't think any products were sold in grocery stores. Health inspectors also found sanitation issues at the plant -- including a leak in a food prep area, soil on a table and hand-washing problems -- and believe the listeria in the chopped celery may have contaminated other food products made at the plant.

The state officials said pinpointing a listeria source is often difficult because of the small number of cases, the infection's long incubation period and difficulty collecting complete information about what people ate. The state is contacting distributors, restaurants and institutions that could have received the recalled food. Customers should discard or return the food.

Sangar supplies produce to the San Antonio metro area, including Austin. On its website, the company said its customers distribute its products -- lettuce, salads, cut vegetables and cut fruit -- in the Rio Grande Valley, Houston, Dallas and Oklahoma. Founded in 2000, Sangar has been licensed by the state since 2008, employs between 50 to 100 people and is expected to do $446,000 in sales this year, according to Experian Business Reports.

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