Texas fresh-cut plant shut after links to 5 listeria deaths in celery

Sometime in Jan. 2010, someone in Texas got really sick with listeria.

By mid-May, 2010, five were sick and two were dead – all from the same strain of listeria. By Oct. 20, 2010, five were sick and five had died from the same strain of listeria. Most of the listeriosis patients were elderly with serious underlying health problems, and many were hospitalized before and during the onset of their infection.

Health types said six of the 10 cases were conclusively linked to chopped celery sold by Sangar Fresh Cut Produce of San Antonio, so yesterday, the Texas Department of State Health Services ordered Sangar to stop processing food and recall all products shipped from the plant since January. The order was issued after laboratory tests of chopped celery from the plant indicated the presence of Listeria monocytogenes.

Sangar President Kenneth Sanquist Jr. took issue with the state, adding in a statement,

“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. This independent testing shows our produce to be absolutely safe, and we are aggressively fighting the state’s erroneous findings.”

DSHS inspectors say that in the Sanger plant, they found a condensation leak above a food product area, soil on a preparation table and hand washing issues.

The recalled products – primarily cut fresh produce in sealed packages – were distributed to restaurants and institutional entities, such as hospitals and schools, and are not believed to be sold in grocery stores.

For a glimpse of the Sanger plant, see the video below from Aug. 13, 2010, when Sanquist told KENS5 TV in San Antonio there should be tougher standards in the fresh-cut industry, adding,

"All we’re saying is everyone should have that standard. 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."

Sanquist said many businesses only require their produce company have a recall program in place and that’s simply not enough prevention.