After lab tests detected Listeria monocytogenes in chopped celery, Sangar Fresh Cut Produce has been told to shut down its food processing plant by the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). Listeria belongs to a group of bacteria with the potential to trigger miscarriages, stillbirths and premature births, as well as serious and sometimes life-threatening infections in very young children, elderly individuals and those with a weakened immune system.

The DSHS informs that the produce was cut fresh and inserted into sealed packages and then distributed to institutions, such as schools and hospitals, as well as restaurants. Authorities say they do not think the recalled products have been distributed to retail outlets (shops and stores).

The DSHS says it carried out laboratory tests after 10 cases of listeriosis (listeria infection) were reported in Bexar, Travis and Hidalgo counties, including 5 fatalities. Six of the ten listeriosis cases were linked the Sangar plant’s chopped celery.

Authorities stress that in every case infection affected people with underlying health problems.

Listeria can have a long incubation period, making it difficult to track down exactly where the illnesses originated from – apparently the reported infection cases occurred over a period of eight months. The DSHS added that the relatively small number of reported cases added to the difficulty in pinpointing the source of the problem.

Sanitation failings were identified at the Sangar plant, raising the risk that other foods processed there may also have become tainted. Soil was found on a preparation table, hand hygiene was not up to standard, and a condensation leak was found above the food product area.

Health and food safety personnel in Texas are getting in touch with institutions, distributors and restaurants that may have received the potentially contaminated produce. DSHS says it is doing everything it can to protect the public from infection.

The investigation into potential contamination sources and how far distributed products have reached is ongoing, the DSHS wrote in a communiqué.

Health authorities in Texas say the food processing plant will not be allowed to reopen until they say so.

A pregnant woman is 20 times more likely to develop listeriosis compared to other people because of hormonal changes that occur in pregnancy. The infection is not usually seriously harmful to the mother, but it can cause serious damage to the unborn child, and significantly raises the chances of having a stillbirth, miscarriage or premature baby.

Experts say it is hard to estimate how common listeria infection (listeriosis) is, because most infected individuals just get flu-like symptoms and do not report it.

For people with non-invasive listeriosis, when the infection is limited to the digestive system, symptoms usually clear within a few days without any need for treatment.

For those with invasive listeriosis, when the infection spreads into the blood (sepsis) and/or the central nervous system en route to the brain, the outlook is poor – approximately 35% develop a serious infection which results in death.

The signs and symptoms of listeriosis, which may begin from a few days to a couple of months after becoming infected, may include diarrhea, fever, muscle aches, and chills. If the infection spreads beyond the digestive system (invasive) and reaches the nervous system, apart from the already-mentioned signs and symptoms, the patient may also experience changes in mental state, confusion, lack of alertness, convulsions, headache, physical co-ordination problems, loss of balance, fits (seizures), a stiff neck, and uncontrollable twitching or shaking.

Source: Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS)

Written by Christian Nordqvist