WASHINGTON — Millions of cans of chili sauce, corned beef hash and beef stew produced by a Georgia food company are being recalled in the largest botulism scare involving commercially canned goods in more than 30 years.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration on Monday directed stores and consumers nationwide to immediately discard more than 80 brands of canned meat made at Castleberry's Food Company's Augusta, Ga., plant because they could be contaminated with the deadly bacteria.
Several types of pet food, which Castleberry's packages for Natural Balance, are also being recalled.
"They should throw them away immediately," said Dr. Robert Bracket, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
The recommended method of removal dramatized officials' concern: Consumers were asked to remove the 10-, 12- and 15-ounce products from their homes by placing the items in sealed double plastic bags before placing them in trash receptacles.
So far, two people have been hospitalized with botulism in Indiana and in Texas after eating Castleberry's hot dog chili sauce, authorities said. The tainted sauce was produced on May 7 and May 8, but the recall applies to products manufactured up to two years ago. The plant has been shut down as the investigation continues.
Castleberry's began a voluntary recall of 10 products on July 18. That recall was expanded to more than 80 products on Saturday after 16 cans of chili sauce tested positive for Botulinum toxin, a bacterium that can cause botulism. FDA officials said the cans showed signs of swelling, a telltale indicator of botulism contamination.
The initial recall and the reported illnesses are linked to sauces with "best by" dates of April 30 to May 22, 2009. But the recall includes all products irrespective of "best by" dates.
"There is nothing more important to us than the health of those who use our products every day," said Steve Mavity, a quality assurance expert for Castleberry's. "We are taking every step necessary and are working hand in hand with health officials around the clock to ensure the safety of consumers."
The source of the outbreak isn't known, but investigators are focusing on a production line at the plant where food temperatures may not have been high enough to kill botulism spores, said Bracket.
Symptoms of botulism poisoning can begin in humans from six hours to two weeks after eating tainted food. Botulism can cause trouble with speaking or swallowing, along with creating general weakness, dizziness, double vision and breathing difficulty. It can also cause weakness in other muscles, abdominal pain and constipation.
Botulism poisoning can also paralyze breathing muscles and cause death unless mechanical ventilation is administered. People with these symptoms and who have recently eaten one of Castleberry's products should seek immediate medical attention, officials said.
Botulism is rare in dogs, with symptoms such as progressive motor paralysis and difficulty with breathing, chewing and swallowing appearing within 12 to 24 hours. No pet illnesses have been reported, but pet owners who may have used these products and whose pets have these symptoms should contact their veterinarians immediately.
The FDA sees about 25 cases of botulism a year, mostly involving home-canned products. Officials said it's very rare to see cases involving commercially canned products.
Federal officials are working to notify retailers large and small about the recall orders. Castleberry's, a subsidiary of Bumble Bee Foods, has hired a company to visit more than 8,000 stores to make sure the products have been removed from shelves.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
A complete list of all recalled items.
Castleberry's recommends consumers with any questions or concerns about this recall should go to Castleberry's Web site or call Castleberry's consumer hotline at 1-800-203-4412.
Additional instructions for safe disposal.
Consumers with questions can call the FDA at 1-888-SAFEFOOD.