Stores nationwide are continuing to sell recalled canned chili, stew, hash and other foods potentially contaminated with poisonous bacteria even after repeated warnings the products could kill.
Thousands of cans are being removed from store shelves as quickly as investigators find them, more than a week after Castleberry's Food Co. began recalling more than 90 potentially contaminated products over fears of botulism contamination.
The recall now covers two years' production at the company's Augusta, Ga., plant — a tally that spirals into the tens of millions of cans.
Spot checks by the Food and Drug Administration and state officials continue to turn up recalled products for sale in convenience stores, gas stations and family run groceries, from Florida to Alaska. The FDA alone has found them in roughly 250 of the more than 3,700 stores visited in nationwide checks, according to figures the agency provided to The Associated Press.
In states like North Carolina, more than one in three stores checked by state officials in recent days were still offering recalled products for sale. Officials there pulled 5,500 cans and pledged to keep searching.
"We're not going to quit. These numbers are too high," said Joe Reardon, who oversees food protection for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Four people have been sickened and hospitalized because of the contaminated food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Officials fear the tally will grow.
"Frankly, the fact we have had only four illnesses in this situation has people saying, 'Well, what is the big deal?' The deal is this is something that can land you in the ICU, not being able to breathe, for weeks," said Dr. David Acheson, the FDA's lead food safety expert.
FDA investigators believe Castleberry's failed to properly cook some or all the products, allowing the Clostridium botulinum bacteria to survive the canning process. In the oxygen-free and moist environment of the sealed cans, the bacteria thrive and produce a toxin that causes botulism, a muscle-paralyzing disease.
"The longer this stuff stays in the can, the worse it gets," Acheson said.
The bacteria also produce gases that can cause contaminated cans to swell and burst. Already, cans being held in a company warehouse have begun to break open. Health officials say the extremely potent toxin can infect people if it is inhaled, swallowed or absorbed through the eye or breaks in the skin.
Health experts consider botulism a severe health threat but worry that word of the recall has not reached all consumers or retailers, especially mom-and-pop operations.
"It has been a problem getting the message out. We're having a problem reaching the smaller stores," said Lynae Granzow, an epidemiologist with the Indiana Department of Health.
In Massachusetts, health inspectors found recalled products in fewer than 50 small stores, mostly in the Boston area, state Department of Public Health spokeswoman Donna Rheaume said. Spot checks in Alaska, Florida, Kentucky, Montana, New York, Indiana and elsewhere also have found them on shelves.
Castleberry's has hired a company to collect the recalled products from stores. It has posted a complete list of the recalled products, including some dog foods, on its Web site — http://www.castleberrys.com/
People who have any of the recalled products at home should double-bag and throw them away, the FDA recommends.
Castleberry's is owned by Bumble Bee Seafoods LLC, based in San Diego.