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Sangar celery plant battles Texas authorities in the media

by Joan Murphy | October 29, 2010
Sangar Fresh Cut Produce in San Antonio, TX, which was shut down Oct. 20 after Texas authorities tied the processor to a listeriosis outbreak, is fighting the charges in the press.

Six of the 10 cases of listeria poisoning have been traced to chopped celery from the Sangar plant, said the Texas Department of State Health Services, and 10 cases, including five deaths, have been reported to state authorities over the last eight months.

"We asked the company to voluntarily close while we do the investigation, but they refused," Carrie Williams, a spokesperson for DSHS, told The Produce News Oct. 27.

Texas authorities ordered the plant closed and mandated a recall of all products distributed to restaurant and institutional customers since January, Ms. Williams said. The recalled products — primarily cut fresh produce in sealed packages — were not believed to be sold in grocery stores.

Texas authorities said that Listeria monocytogenes was found in chopped celery at the plant during its investigation.

“DSHS inspectors also found sanitation issues at the plant and believe the Listeria found in the chopped celery may have contaminated other food produced there,” DSHS said. “The department found a condensation leak above a food-product area, soil on a preparation table and hand washing issues.”

But Kenneth Sanquist, president of Sangar, released a statement charging the state's claim that some of the produce fails to meet health standards contradicts independent tests conducted on the same products.

An attorney for the company has provided a security video that news reports said shows an inspector in the fresh-cut plant handling samples without wearing gloves, a mask or a gown and transporting them in a non-chilled container. The company charges Texas authorities with contaminating the samples.

“Our employee did her job correctly,” said Ms. Williams, who added that lab coats and gloves are not needed to transport product in a sealed bag.

The Food & Drug Administration first inspected the plant Oct. 14 and collected environmental and product samples but has yet to report the results of the tests.

“We thought they would have been available last week,” an FDA spokesman said Oct. 27, adding that the FDA has begun recall audit checks to make sure the recalled products are out of the marketplace.

The 10-year-old company says on its web site that “food safety is our top priority” and that Primus Labs, Quanta Labs, U.S. government officials and Texas health officials conduct regular inspections.

The company sells fresh-cut salad mixes, fruits and vegetables in the San Antonio area, which are distributed in the Rio Grande Valley, Houston, Dallas and Oklahoma, according to the company’s web site.

DSHS is contacting distributors, restaurants and institutions believed to have received the recalled products to ensure they are taking appropriate action to protect consumers.

Ms. Williams said that Sangar is cooperating with Texas authorities in making sure the plant is cleaned up.