Federal health officials found the listeria bacteria at a San Antonio food processing plant that Texas authorities have linked to four deaths from contaminated celery, the Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday.
The federal agency said it found the pathogen in multiple locations in the SanGar Produce & Processing Co. plant, confirming the testing announced last month by the Texas Department of State Health Services.
The Texas health authority shut the plant down Oct. 20 and ordered a recall of all produce shipped from there since January. A hearing on the case is set for Nov. 17 in Austin.
"It comes as no surprise to us," Texas health department spokeswoman Carrie Williams said Wednesday of the FDA's findings. "If there was any doubt out there, this erases it. It's another layer of confirmation that this plant had serious issues."
FDA spokeswoman Patricia El-Hinnawy said in an e-mail the agency would not comment on the results.
Jason Galvan, an attorney for SanGar, said he couldn't immediately comment on the FDA report.
"The FDA and the state have not turned over to us the documentation supporting their findings. We cannot comment on these most recent findings until the documentation is provided for independent evaluation by our experts," Galvan said.
After the closure of the plant, which also produced lettuce, pineapple and honeydew, the company alleged the state health inspector who took samples on Oct. 11 could have contaminated them by being dressed improperly and touching surfaces — an assertion the state department denied.
SanGar has said its own tests would disprove the health department's findings. Galvan said Wednesday that analysis done Oct. 26 by a Texas laboratory hired by SanGar returned negative results for listeria.
The state health department initially traced six of 10 known cases of listeriosis during an eight-month period to celery processed at the SanGar plant, including four deaths. The department last week linked a seventh case to SanGar, Williams said. The agency is investigating the origins of the other three cases.
An FDA report also released Wednesday included 18 observations from inspectors, including failure to take necessary precautions to protect against contamination of food and food contact surfaces; failure to store raw materials in a way that protects against contamination; failure to take apart equipment as necessary to ensure thorough cleaning; and failure to take effective measures to protect finished food from contamination by raw materials and refuse.
Others observations included failure to keep foods that can support rapid growth of "undesirable microorganisms" at a temperature that prevents food from becoming adulterated and failure to provide adequate screening or other protection against pests. The report also stated that the plant is not built in a way that allows floors and walls to be adequately cleaned and kept in good repair.
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.
Those with weaker immune systems — including pregnant women, young children, the elderly and those battling serious illness — are most at risk of becoming seriously ill or dying because of listeriosis, the CDC says. Healthy adults and children occasionally are infected with the disease but rarely become seriously ill.
The health department has prohibited SanGar from reopening the plant without agency approval.
"We're working with them to clean up their business so that they may be able to reopen in the future," Williams said. "The bottom line is we need to be sure the company can produce safe food before it reopens."