On October 20, 2010, the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS) announced that it had determined chopped celery was the source of a Listeria food poisoning outbreak among Texas residents. Texas DSHS had been investigating the source of 10 cases of listeriosis—the illness caused by the ingestion of Listeria baciteria, 5 of which resulted in death, for 8 months when investigators determined that the source of the outbreak was chopped celery sold by Sangar Fresh Cut Produce in San Antonio. Six of the 10 cases have been conclusively linked to consumption of the chopped celery.
According to a health department press release, all cases of Listeria food poisoning occurred in Bexar, Travis and Hidalgo counties. All of the reported cases were in people with serious underlying health problems.
Several segments of the population are at increased risk for contracting listeriosis. Individuals at increased risk include:
- Pregnant women: They are about 20 times more likely than other healthy adults to get listeriosis. About one-third of listeriosis cases happen during pregnancy.
- Newborns: Newborns rather than the pregnant women themselves suffer the serious effects of infection in pregnancy.
- Persons with weakened immune systems
- Persons with cancer, diabetes, or kidney disease
- Persons with AIDS: They are almost 300 times more likely to get listeriosis than people with normal immune systems.
- Persons who take glucocorticosteroid medications (such as cortisone)
- The elderly
Texas DSHS ordered the celery manufacturer, Sangar Fresh Cut Produce in San Antonio, to stop processing food and recall all products shipped from the plant since January 2010 after lab testing of chopped celery from the plant indicated the presence of Listeria. According to a press release issued by Texas DSHS, conditions in the food processing plant posed “an immediate and serious threat to human life or health.”
Sangar Fresh Cut Produce recalled products include primarily cut fresh produce in sealed packages, which were distributed to restaurants and institutional facilities such as hospitals and schools. The chopped celery and other products is not believed to have been sold in grocery stores.
Texas DSHS inspectors reported that they found sanitation issues at the plant during the Listeria outbreak investigation and believe the Listeria bacteria found in the chopped celery may have contaminated other food manufactured in the facility. The agency stated in a press release that a condensation leak had been found above the food product area during an inspection. Inspectors also found soil on a food preparation table and identified hand washing issues. All of these factors could have contributed to the spread of Listeria throughout the food manufacturing plant where celery was chopped and packaged.
Texas DSHS food safety personnel are continuing their investigation into the possible points within the facility where the celery became contaminated with Listeria and is contacting distributors, restaurants and institutions believed to have received the recalled products to ensure the celery and other products sold by Sangar Fresh Cut Produce does not reach consumers.
The order issued by Texas DSHS prohibits the plant from reopening without DSHS approval.
The incubation period (time between ingestion and the onset of symptoms) for Listeria ranges from three to 70 days and averages 21 days.
A person with listeriosis may develop fever, muscle aches, and sometimes gastrointestinal symptoms such as nausea or diarrhea. If infection spreads to the nervous system, symptoms such as headache, stiff neck, confusion, loss of balance, or convulsions can occur. In immune-deficient individuals, Listeria can invade the central nervous system, causing meningitis and/or encephalitis (brain infection). Infected pregnant women ordinarily experience only a mild, flu-like illness; however, infection during pregnancy can lead to miscarriage, infection of the newborn or even stillbirth.
Newborns may present clinically with early-onset (less than 7 days) or late-onset forms of infection (7 or more days). Those with the early-onset form are often diagnosed in the first 24 hours of life with sepsis (infection in the blood). Early-onset listeriosis is most often acquired from the mother through transplacental transmission. Late-onset neonatal listeriosis is less common than the early-onset form. Clinical symptoms may be subtle and include irritability, fever and poor feeding. The mode of acquisition of late-onset listeriosis is poorly understood.