WASHINGTON — Cans of recalled food are bursting, swollen with bacteria that cause botulism.
The bursting cans were among those being held by Castleberry’s Food Co., which last week announced a massive recall that now includes more than 90 potentially contaminated products, including chili sauces and dog foods.
News about the bursting cans gives new urgency to warnings from federal health officials to get rid of the recalled cans from pantries and store shelves.
Spot checks by the Food and Drug Administration and state officials are turning up recalled products for sale in convenience stores, gas stations and family-run groceries.
The FDA has found recalled products for sale in roughly 250 of the more than 3,700 stores visited in nationwide checks, according to figures the agency provided to The Associated Press.
Four people have been sickened and hospitalized by the contaminated food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The recall covers potentially tens of millions of cans of food; officials fear the tally will grow.
FDA investigators believe Castleberry Food failed to properly cook some or all the products, allowing the Clostridium botulinum bacteria to survive the canning process.
The bacteria produce a toxin that causes botulism, a muscle-paralyzing disease.
“We’re not talking here about a bug that lands you in the bathroom for a few days with diarrhea. We’re talking about a toxin that puts you in the intensive care unit,” said Dr. David Acheson, the FDA’s lead food safety expert. “This is foodborne illness with an extra kick in it, big time.”
Thriving in cans
The bacteria thrive in moist, oxygen-free environments; inside canned food is a perfect place.
As the bacteria grow and reproduce, they produce gases that can cause contaminated cans to swell and burst. 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.
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“The longer this stuff stays in the can, the worse it gets,” Acheson said.
It was not immediately clear how many cans had burst. Earlier FDA tests on 17 bulging cans being held by Castleberry’s found 16 that contained the toxin.
FDA and officials in some states worry that word of the recall has not reached all consumers or retailers.
“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.
Spot checks confirm that officials in Florida, Kentucky, Montana, New York, Indiana and elsewhere are finding recalled products in stores, especially smaller, mom-and-pop operations.
In North Carolina, officials removed 5,500 cans from slightly more than one-third of the 250 stores checked Wednesday and Thursday, said Joe Reardon, who oversees food protection for the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
“We’re not going to quit. These numbers are too high,” Reardon said.
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.
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.
People who have any of the recalled products at home should double-bag and thrown them away, the FDA recommends.
Castleberry’s is owned by Bumble Bee Seafoods LLC, based in San Diego.
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