ATLANTA – A Georgia plant that makes the canned chili sauce suspected in a botulism outbreak had a production problem about two months ago, though a check of the cans had found no problems, a company official said Thursday.
The Augusta plant made the sauce that is suspected of seriously sickening an Indiana couple and two children in Texas.
Cans of chili sauce found in the victims' homes were produced around the time of the Castleberry's Food Co. production problem, company spokesman Dave Melbourne said.
"We found not only chili sauce in both, but the same type," said Dr. Ezra Barzilay, an epidemiologist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About two months ago, cans were coming out of a heating and sterilizing process too hot before going into a cooling canal, he said. Company officials stopped production because they wanted to make sure cans had not expanded and possibly allowed contamination, he said.
A check of can contents by independent evaluators also found no problems, Melbourne said.
The sauce was named as the outbreak's source after investigators tested the Indiana couple and a bag of their leftover food, federal health officials said.
The company, which is owned by Bumble Bee Seafoods LLC and based in San Diego, is cooperating, though no botulism has been found in any of their cans, Melbourne said.
State and federal investigators have not found proof of problems that could explain the contamination, said Georgia Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin.
Investigators traced the sickness of the Texas siblings, ages 12 and 13, to a June 28 meal of hot dogs slathered with chili sauce. Investigators believe the husband and wife in Indiana got sick from a July 5 meal that included chili sauce and baked potatoes.
All four of the patients became seriously ill and had to be placed on ventilators, health officials said.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a warning to consumers Wednesday about 10-ounce cans of Castleberry's, Austex and Kroger brands of hot dog chili sauce with "best by" dates from April 30, 2009, through May 22, 2009.
Also on Wednesday, Castleberry's announced a recall of 10 brands of chili sauce, hash and other canned products. The company recalled the seven other products that weren't the subject of the FDA warning because they were produced during the same time as the production problem, Melbourne said.
"We decided on the recall just to be safe," he said.
About 25 cases of food-borne botulism are reported in the United States each year. Most stem from food canned at home, CDC officials said.
Symptoms include double or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth and muscle weakness that moves down the body, according to the CDC.
Eventually, paralysis can cause a person to stop breathing and die, unless supported by a ventilator. Most victims recover after weeks to months of care.
About 20,000 cases — or more than 300,000 cans — were recalled from 22 states, mostly in the Southeast, Midwest and Southwest, Melbourne said. About 450 people work at the plant where they were produced, he said.