People should immediately throw away more than 90 different products, from chili sauce to corned beef hash to dog food, produced at a plant linked to a botulism outbreak, the government warned Monday.
Castleberry's Food Co. temporarily closed the suspect plant.
"You're talking tens of millions of cans that may have been involved," said Robert Brackett, director of the Food and Drug Administration's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
The company has hired an outside firm to visit more than 8,500 retailers around the country in an effort to quickly get recalled products off store shelves.
So far, four cases of botulism have been reported — two from Indiana and two from Texas. All four people consumed Hot Dog Chili Sauce Original, a product made by Castleberry's.
On Saturday, Castleberry's expanded its voluntary recall of canned meat products. It specified more than 80 types of canned chili, beef stew, corned beef hash and other meat products in addition to the 10 products it had recalled Thursday. The products were sold under a multitude of brand names.
Although Castleberry is recalling everything made on the one manufacturing line, the only products linked to illness thus far are the chili sauces.
Company officials said they were working closely with the FDA and the Department of Agriculture to determine just how widespread the problem is. They could not provide information about how many of the recalled products were still on store shelves.
"So that we can devote all available resources to this investigation, we agreed to shut down our entire facility in Augusta. We will not process any more food there until the FDA and the USDA agrees it is appropriate to reopen," said Dave Melbourne, senior vice president for Castleberry's. "And, we have stopped all further product distribution from our centers."
The plant is expected to be closed for about a week, he said.
Botulism is a rare but serious illness caused by consuming foods with the botulinum toxin, a nerve toxin that can cause paralysis of the arms, breathing muscles and legs. Symptoms, such as blurred vision and slurred speech, generally begin 18 to 36 hours after eating contaminated food.
Typically, commercially canned foods are heated long enough and to high enough temperatures to kill the spores. Melbourne confirmed that the botulism occurred in the chili sauce because the product was undercooked.
"The current tests only indicate botulism toxin for the chili products, but because other products were also canned using the same equipment, we expanded the recall to include all brands that were canned on the same line," Melbourne said.
The company has also asked consumers to dispose of any questionable goods from Castleberry's in doubled plastic bags. Consumers can get full refunds by calling the company. The company is not asking consumers to bring product labels into the grocery store so that they can get refunds.
The number of people who have so far become ill from the botulism toxin pales compared to some recent food recalls.
For example, last year's outbreak of E. coli from baby spinach resulted in 205 confirmed illnesses and three deaths. More recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has identified 60 persons, mostly toddlers, who became ill after eating a snack food that contained a strain of Salmonella. Five people were hospitalized after eating the product, called Veggie Booty.
The symptoms associated with botulism are so severe, consumers must not take chances, officials said.
Consumers with questions about the recall may contact Castleberry's at 1-888-203-8446.