WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A recall of canned meat products and dog food made at a Georgia plant due to botulism fears could involve tens of millions of cans that pose an urgent public health threat, U.S. officials said on Monday.
U.S. food regulators appealed to consumers and retailers to find and dispose of the cans.
Two people in Texas and two others in Indiana remain seriously ill and hospitalized with botulism poisoning associated with eating Castleberry's Hot Dog Chili Sauce, officials said.
"This is a very big recall," David Elder of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's office of regulatory affairs told reporters, deeming it an "urgent public health matter."
"These products can hurt people. And they have to be off the store shelves. And consumers have to discard any that they have at home," Elder added.
U.S. officials said an outbreak of botulism due to a commercially canned food is extremely rare and has not occurred in the United States in more than three decades.
Castleberry's Food Co. said on Saturday it had voluntarily expanded a recall of hot dog chili sauce and canned meat products originally announced on July 18 due to a risk of botulinum toxin, a bacterium that can cause botulism.
Castleberry's is a unit of Connors Bros. Income Fund's Bumble Bee Foods division.
The recall by Castleberry's originally affected 10 products. The expanded move involves more than 80 types of stew, chili, hash and other products as well as pet food sold under a variety of brand names.
"You're talking about tens of millions of cans that may have been involved. That doesn't mean that's how many are still out on shelves. But that's sort of the scale," added Robert Bracket, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
U.S. regulators are trying to track down distribution records from the company, Bracket said, adding that officials view this as a nationwide recall.
Botulism is a potentially fatal illness. Symptoms include dizziness, double vision, difficulty in breathing and abdominal problems.
The cans that sickened the four people were produced at the plant on May 7 and May 8, officials said.
Connors Bros. said it will keep the plant in Augusta, Georgia, closed until given the all-clear by health officials.
"Production will not resume until FDA is satisfied that all conditions that resulted in this recall and these dangerous products have been corrected," Elder said, adding that the FDA last inspected the plant in February.
Officials said 16 out of 17 cans that have been tested have turned up positive for the bacterium that causes botulism.
"The decision was made to add an additional layer of protection and to assure the highest margin of safety by recalling all products produced on this line, regardless of the best-by date on the can," said Dave Melbourne, Castleberry's senior vice president.
Consumers with any questions are urged to view Castleberry's Web site www.castleberrys.com. A toll-free hotline is also available at 1-800-203-4412 or 1-888-203-8446.
(Additional reporting by Shallima Maharaj and Scott Anderson in Toronto)