FDA probe finds Listeria at Texas produce company

Nov 4, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) yesterday said it found Listeria monocytogenes and a long list of food safety infractions during an October inspection of a San Antonio produce plant linked to 10 illnesses, including 5 deaths.

The FDA's investigation, detailed in an 8-page "483" report on the SanGar Fresh Cut Produce plant, lists 19 infractions and confirms some earlier findings from Texas public health officials.

In a separate statement yesterday, the FDA said its environment sampling at SanGar, conducted on Oct 14 and 15, found Listeria in processed celery and in multiple locations throughout the plant, including on food-contact surfaces. It said the DNA fingerprint of the Listeria in its samples matches that from the clinical cases.

In October the Texas Department of State Health Services ordered SanGar to close after state investigators found Listeria in chopped celery that it produced for restaurants and institutions. The testing was done during the course of an investigation into 10 listeriosis cases, including the five fatalities, from three of the state's counties over the past 8 months. Six of the cases had exposure to chopped celery from the plant.

FDA inspectors were at the SanGar plant from Oct 14 through Oct 26, according to the 483 report. They observed several instances during which the food and surfaces could have become contaminated, such as from water spray from floor cleaning activities and unwashed knives.

The produce company didn't appear to have a dedicated utensil-washing sink, and employees were observed washing knives and containers in employee hand-washing sinks. They found trash and produce waste "emitting rancid odors" in a warehouse where raw food products such as onions, cabbage, and cauliflower were stored.

Pallets containing raw celery were stored on a wet concrete floor in a walk-in cooler with condensation dripping on the floor directly beside the product. Pools of water were seen in high-traffic areas on the floors of production areas and in a walk-in cooler.

Improper temperatures were noted in a walk-in cooler holding eggs, boxed produce items, and uncovered containers of other items.

Investigators found several instance in which equipment, such as produce baskets, and floors and walls in processing area were in disrepair.

Investigators also found that plumbing problems were a possible source of food, water, and equipment contamination. A water hose faucet in a cutting room didn't have a backflow-prevention device.

Employee hand-washing facilities lacked sanitary towel service or suitable hand-drying devices, and sinks didn't have a suitable water temperature. They had no cold water, and hot water took about 1 minute to reach the faucets.

Gaps in doors at the facility made the facility vulnerable to pests, the authorities reported.

An earlier investigation by Texas officials found similar sanitation problems at the SanGar plant, and they suspected that Listeria found in celery might have contaminated other food produced at the plant.

SanGar is disputing the FDA's laboratory findings, the Associated Press (AP) reported today. Jason Galvan, an attorney for SanGar, released an Oct 26 analysis done by an outside testing firm hired by the company that showed no positive Listeria findings.

See also:

Oct 21 CIDRAP News story "Texas Listeria outbreak prompts produce recall"

Nov 3 FDA 483 inspection report

Nov 4 AP story

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