Settlement Reached in Castleberry’s Botulism Lawsuit

A settlement was just reached in a federal botulism contamination lawsuit filed by Emanuel Cisneros who sued Bumble Bee foods and its subsidiary, <"">Castleberry’s, for unspecified damages linked to his children’s extended illness.  The children, Marissa and Samuel Cisneros, were hospitalized last June and were subsequently included in The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) listing of patients who ate botulism- tainted Austex brand hot dog chili sauce.

Castelberry’s denies liability under the settlement agreement, but following the outbreak, Castleberry’s recalled a wide variety of products nationwide and closed its Georgia plant.  The amount paid to the Cisneros family is confidential.

Last year, the CDC linked Castleberry’s Hot Dog Chili Sauces to at least four cases of botulism poisoning in Texas and Indiana.  Ultimately, 90 varieties of products and 27 brands of foods manufactured by Castleberry’s were so infested with botulism that some cans were actually bursting.  In that recall, at least eight cases of botulism were reported and covered two years worth of production on one processing line.  Botulism is a rare disease, with fewer than 30 cases reported annually; nearly all botulism cases are related to home canning.  The Castleberry’s outbreak is the first to be linked to commercial canning in over 40 years.  The affected products were produced at the Augusta factory between April 30 and May 22, 2007 on a cooker that had malfunctioned.  To guard against the formation of botulism toxin, canned foods are heated during processing to kill the bacteria.  The cooker at the Castleberry’s factory was dropping cans into cool water while they were still hot.  The company says it followed procedures to check the products before they left the factory.

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.

Meanwhile, earlier last month, the Castleberry’s plant was forced to close—again—after a February 27 inspection by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA) revealed deviations in some equipment operations on a processing line that was not related to last summer’s recall but that could have resulted in undercooking of the meat.  Because under-processing caused the botulism outbreak, the plant’s operating permit was suspended.

Last fall, Castleberry’s’ re-branded its line to American Originals, with a redesigned label.

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