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Castleberry Plant Involved in Botulism Outbreak Closed Again by FDA

Mar 13, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP The Castleberry Food Company plant that produced botulism tainted foods last summer has been closed again.  The botulism scare led to a massive recall of Castleberry products, and a handful of people were sickened with botulism from the contaminated canned foods.  At least one person, an elderly man, died as a result of the illness.

Now, federal food safety officials have again shut down the Castleberry facility in Georgia responsible for the botulism outbreak.  Castleberry received notice from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Friday suspending its operating permit.  The US Department of Agriculture (USDA)—which monitors food plants that include meat in their products— also pulled its inspectors from the plant Friday, according to spokeswoman Amanda Eamich.  The FDA permit was temporary and issued last September under special conditions allowing Castleberry to open following a two-month shutdown that had resulted from the botulism outbreak.

Last summer, 90 varieties of products and 27 brands of foods manufactured by Castleberry were so infested with botulism that some cans were actually bursting.  At least eight cases of botulism were reported, and Castleberry's recall covered two years worth of production on one processing line.  The botulism cases were the first tied to a commercially canned food product in the US in the past 40 years and were linked to a malfunctioning cooker.  To guard against the formation of botulism, canned foods are heated during processing to kill bacteria.  A cooker on the malfunctioning line was dropping cans into cool water.  The production line responsible for the botulism-tainted chili sauces remains closed.

Now, problems on a processing line that is not related with last summer's recall prompted the permit suspension, said Kim Rawlings, an FDA spokeswoman.  While there have been no reports of illness tied to any Castleberry products, the federal agencies suspended operations following an FDA inspection, Eamich said.  Castleberry can apply for reinstatement once it addresses concerns from both federal agencies and develops a correction plan.

There is no recall associated with the latest plant closing, according to a prepared statement from Dave Melbourne, senior vice president of Castleberry's.  Castleberry's did not provide a reason why federal officials shut down the plant.  "We are cooperating fully with the agencies and look forward to a prompt resolution [so] that we can resume operation and work shifts," Melbourne said in the statement.  The plant employs 330 full-time workers.  Last fall, Castleberry's re-branded its line to American Originals, with a redesigned label.

Botulism bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments, which is what is found in a can of food.  As the bacteria reproduce inside a can, gasses are emitted and the building pressure of the gas inside the can often causes it to rupture.  Clostridium botulinum can grow in canned foods that haven't been properly heated during processing, creating a nerve toxin that causes a severe paralyzing illness that can be fatal if left untreated and is characterized by blurred vision, drooping eyelids, muscle weakness, slurred speech, and difficulty swallowing.  If not treated promptly, botulism can paralyze breathing muscles and patients can spend months on ventilators until the toxin wears off.  Unlike other food borne pathogens, botulism toxins can be absorbed through the skin and even inhaled, which means even people who never ate the contaminated product could be at risk for the deadly illness.  Last summer’s concern was—in part—over the potential of cans to rupture releasing toxins into the air.

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