Some 2,000 cans of chili that could be tainted with a deadly toxin were unwittingly distributed locally through ACCESS Inc., Jackson County's emergency food bank. The organization is urging local residents to immediately check their shelves and throw out or return the chili.

Some 2,000 cans of chili that could be tainted with a deadly toxin were unwittingly distributed locally through ACCESS Inc., Jackson County's emergency food bank. The organization is urging local residents to immediately check their shelves and throw out or return the chili.

The cans are part of a nationwide recall of Castleberry's Food Co. canned chili, beef stew, corned beef hash and other meat products.

The recall originally announced on July 18 affected only 10 products, but it expanded Saturday to 90 products. A Castleberry's Food Co. plant in Augusta, Ga. produced the products. The toxin was present in undercooked chili sauce, but because other products were canned on the same equipment, the recall was expanded and the plant closed down while the investigation is ongoing.

There have been no new reported cases in the country beyond the original two people in Texas and two people in Indiana who fell seriously ill with botulism linked to Castleberry's Hot Dog Chili Sauce.

Botulism is a rare but serious illness caused when a person consumes foods with the botulinum toxin, a nerve toxin that can cause paralysis of the arms, breathing muscles and legs. Symptoms such as blurred vision and slurred speech generally begin 18 to 36 hours after eating contaminated food.

Philip Yates, nutrition programs manager for ACCESS, said the organization received 232 cases (with 12 cans per case) of chili through the Oregon Food Bank. They have so far gotten about 67 cases back, which means there could be about 1,980 cans sitting on people's shelves. Yates said ACCESS will post notices at its pantries, but since they serve more than 3,000 households per month, it's difficult to get the word out.

State officials warn that everyone needs to check their shelves.

William E. Keene, senior epidemiologist for Oregon Public Health in Portland, said the problem is trying to reach all the people who bought the cans before the recall and stuck them on shelves. He said a month or a year from now, after the recall is forgotten, those people may take the cans off the shelf, eat the contents and come down with botulism.

"There's real potential for this to pop up in isolated cases for months or years," he said. "This could be a nightmare."

Keene said this has potential to be widespread.

"There seems to be a fairly broad failure at the plant in Georgia," he said, adding that the problem appears to have been going on for months, and the toxin was found in a high proportion of the cans that were tested. "There certainly is more contaminated product out there."

He said in the 1920s botulism was common, but the science of canning has improved.

"There has not been an outbreak from commercially canned foods in more than 20 years," he said.

Many local stores have pulled affected Castleberry's products from their shelves, including Ray's Food Place in Phoenix and Sherm's Thunderbird Market in Medford.

Costco not only pulled two pallets of the recalled products off the shelves, but has sent letters to customers who have purchased the cans, said Marc Biscarret, administrative manager of Costco in Medford.

"Because of our memberships we can actually track who purchased what," he said, adding that he did not have access to the number of letters that were sent out. "It's a nice tool in a situation like this."

He said it's fortunate that chili is not a big seller in the summertime.

No Safeway stores in Oregon carry any of the recalled products, according to spokesperson Teena Massingill in Pleasanton, Calif.

Albertson's does not carry any of the recalled products, said Joe Anderson, assistant store director of the North Ross Lane Albertsons in Medford.

Fred Meyer's director of public affairs Melinda Merrill said local Fred Meyer stores don't carry any of the Castleberry's products that were recalled. (Update: See below.)

Gary Stevens, Jackson County's director of environmental health, said in recent years there have been a couple cases of botulism in Jackson County related with home prepared canning. He said the paralytic illness, caused by the nerve toxin, can cause muscles used in breathing to fail and can lead to death. It's imperative to seek medical help, he said.

"Most cases recover if diagnosed and treated (with the anti-toxin)," he said. "Recovery can take months."

Reach reporter Meg Landers at 776-4481 or e-mail mlanders@mailtribune.com.

(Update: The print version of this story didn't include information about Fred Meyer stores because a representative couldn't be contacted by press time. The company responded later and this story has been updated.)