California apple company recalls 2014 shipments after link to listeria in caramel apples

Markets Associated Press

A California apple packing plant has recalled all of its Granny Smith and Gala apple shipments from 2014 after they were linked to an outbreak of listeria in caramel apples that may have caused up to five deaths.

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The Food and Drug Administration said Thursday that Bidart Bros. of Bakersfield, California is recalling apples shipped from its Shafter, California packing facility last year, prompted by a federal investigation of 32 listeria illnesses in 11 states, including the deaths.

Those 11 states are Arizona, California, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Texas, Utah, Washington and Wisconsin.

The company supplied the apples for two commercial caramel apple brands that are linked to illnesses.

Health officials warned consumers in December to avoid prepackaged caramel apples after they were linked to the illnesses. Caramel apples are most popular around Halloween, and the outbreak started just before then, in mid-October. But the commercially produced variety can have a shelf life of a month or more, and some may still be on store shelves.

Bidart Bros. issued a recall Dec. 22 just to customers that produce caramel apples. The next day, the Food and Drug Administration and the California Department of Public Health inspected the facility, finding listeria present on surfaces likely to come into contact with apples. While the agencies are still analyzing the samples to definitively link them to the strains of listeria in the outbreak, Bidart recalled apples shipped from the Shafter facility on Jan. 6.

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The company did not immediately return a call for comment. The FDA said some of the apples recalled may be sold under the names the brand names "Big B" and "Granny's Best," though they could also be sold under other brand names or with no brand at all. The agency said that consumers who have recently bought Granny Smith or Gala apples should ask retailers if they were supplied by Bidart Bros.

Several caramel apple brands have also issued recalls, including Happy Apple, Kroger, California Snack Foods and Merb's Candies.

It is unclear how many deaths are directly linked to the outbreak. Six people who contracted the strains of listeria died, but one of the deaths was not caused by listeriosis, the CDC said. The agency said it is clear that listeriosis contributed to three of the deaths and unclear whether it contributed to the other two.

Listeria is a foodborne illness that is especially dangerous to pregnant women, newborn babies, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems. It rarely causes serious illness in healthy people and can be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms include fever, muscle aches, nausea and diarrhea.

The FDA says the investigation is ongoing, and the agencies are trying to determine if there are any other common sources of caramel, caramel ingredients, sticks or packaging to the caramel apple makers.

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Follow Mary Clare Jalonick on Twitter at http://twitter.com/mcjalonick