Texas officials close food processing plant

SAN ANTONIO -- Texas health officials have shut down a processing plant linked to contaminated celery that sickened at least six people this year, four of whom died, and ordered the recall of all of the produce that passed through the plant since January.

SanGar Produce & Processing Co. issued the recall Wednesday after its plant in San Antonio was shuttered. The Texas Department of State Health Services traced six of 10 known cases of listeriosis in the state during an eight-month period to celery processed there. The agency is investigating the origins of the other four cases, which include one death. Health inspectors found problems with sanitation at the plant, including a condensation leak over a food production area.

The health department is trying to determine who the now-recalled produce was sold to and whether it was used in other products. The agency recommends that customers throw out or return all SanGar products.

The Food and Drug Administration is also looking into the contamination and may decide to expand the recall once it learns more, Don Kraemer, the deputy director in the FDA's Office of Food Safety, told The Associated Press on Thursday.

Texas health department spokeswoman Carrie Williams said that the state asked the company to close voluntarily but it refused.

"They refused, so we shut them down and ordered a recall," she said.

Kenneth Sanquist Jr., the company's president, said in a statement Thursday that the state used flawed methods to collect its samples. The sample at the plant "appears" to have been taken by someone not wearing proper lab attire and proper gloves, and was transported in a nonrefrigerated container, he said.

Williams said the agency stands by its analysis and lab results.

Health officials are trying to determine how much potentially tainted produce passed through the plant since January and whether it could have ended up in other products. Some of the celery was grown in California, but there appeared to be no problem with it until it reached the SanGar plant, Williams said.

Health officials said the produce was sold to restaurants, schools and hospitals, but that they don't believe it was sold in grocery stores.

The 10 people who contracted listeriosis were in Bexar, Travis and Hidalgo counties, in Central and South Texas. Williams said the agency has no information so far that the recalled produce -- which also includes lettuce, pineapple and honeydew melons -- were distributed outside of Texas.

"We know other products are chopped at the plant on the same line," Williams said.

On its website, SanGar says that "indirectly through several of our customers, our products are distributed in the Rio Grande Valley, Houston, Dallas and Oklahoma."

All 10 people who contracted the disease in Texas already had serious underlying health problems, the health department said.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 500 people die of listeriosis each year in the U.S., and about 2,500 people become seriously ill.