Or is the fifth “sproutbreak” in four years the reason?

Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwich franchise owners and customers are being told the chain is permanently dropping sprouts from the menu.

Jimmy John’s restaurants are currently associated with a five-state outbreak of the rare O26 strain of E. coli.   It is the fifth outbreak involving sprouts traced back to Jimmy John’s franchises since 2008.

While there has been no public comment by Jimmy John’s since the outbreak was announced February 15,  a Kirkville, MO franchise owner says “Jimmy himself” has ordered all sprouts permanently removed from the menu.

“Jimmy decided he was tired of the negative press from it and he thinks sprouts aren’t necessary for Jimmy John’s to rock,” franchise owner Will Aubuchon told the Daily Express in Kirksville, MO.

And Linda DeGraaf, a Jimmy John’s customer from Omaha who was sickened in the 2009 outbreak, was told by a corporate email that sprouts have been dropped.  “We no longer serve sprouts because supplies are too inconsistent,” wrote a Jimmy John’s spokeswoman.

After a 2010 outbreak, founder Jimmy John Liautaud switched the sandwich chain to clover sprouts after Salmonella illnesses were associated with alfalfa sprouts. At the time, he said clover sprout seeds were smoother and would be easier to clean.

Jimmy John’s is not alone among sandwich chains that have decided sprouts are too risky.   The 230-unit Jason’s Deli dropped sprouts for at least the balance of 2012 as a food safety concern.  And the current O26 outbreak prompted the seven-state Erbert and Gerbert’s Sandwich Shops to drop sprouts.

Jimmy John’s recent history includes five major outbreaks associated with spouts. Only the latest involves E coli O26.

Briefly here’s the history of each of those incidents, including the latest ongoing event:

2011 – E. coli O26

On February 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced an ongoing investigation into illnesses linked to consumption of raw clover sprouts at Jimmy John’s restaurants.

Twelve are sickened in five states.  Among the 11 ill persons with information available, 10 (91 percent) reported eating at a Jimmy John’s sandwich restaurant in the 7 days preceding illness. Ill persons reported eating at 9 different locations of Jimmy John’s restaurants in 4 states in the week before becoming ill.

One Jimmy John’s restaurant location was identified where more than one ill person reported eating in the week before becoming ill. Among the 10 ill persons who reported eating at a Jimmy John’s restaurant location, 8 (80 percent) reported eating a sandwich containing sprouts, and 9 (90 percent) reported eating a sandwich containing lettuce.

Currently, no other common grocery stores or restaurants are associated with illnesses. Preliminary traceback information has identified a common lot of clover seeds used to grow clover sprouts served at Jimmy John’s restaurant locations where ill persons ate.

FDA and states conducted a traceback that identified two separate sprouting facilities; both used the same lot of seed to grow clover sprouts served at these Jimmy John’s restaurant locations. On Feb. 10, 2012, the seed supplier notified sprouting facilities that received this lot of clover seed to stop using it. Investigations are ongoing to identify other locations that may have sold clover sprouts grown from this seed lot.

2010 (December) – Salmonella Newport

Sprouters Northwest of Kent, WA, issued a product recall after the company’s clover sprouts had been implicated in an outbreak in Oregon and Washington. At least some of the cases had consumed clover sprouts while at a Jimmy John’s restaurants.  Seven were sickened.

At about the same time, a separate Salmonella outbreak was linked to Tiny Greens Organic Farm, and Jimmy John’s, involving alfalfa sprouts served at Jimmy John’s restaurants.

2010 (Dec) – Salmonella I4,[5],12:i:-

A second outbreak involving Jimmy John’s was reported Dec. 17, 2010 by the Illinois Department of Health.   Many of the Illinois cases reported eating alfalfa sprouts at various Jimmy John’s franchises in an outbreak that sickened 140.

Four days later, on December 21, Jimmy John Liautaud asked all of his franchises to remove sprouts from the menu as a “precautionary” measure.

On December 23, the Centers for Disease Control revealed that outbreak cases had been detected in other states and that the outbreak was linked with eating alfalfa sprouts while at a “nationwide sandwich chain.”

On December 26, preliminary results of the investigation indicated a link to eating Tiny Greens’ Alfalfa Sprouts at Jimmy John’s restaurant outlets. The FDA subsequently advised consumers and restaurants to avoid Tiny Greens Brand Alfalfa Sprouts and Spicy Sprouts produced by Tiny Greens Organic Farm of Urbana, Illinois. Spicy sprouts contained alfalfa, radish and clover sprouts.

On Jan. 14, 2011, it was revealed that the FDA had isolated Salmonella serotype I4, [5], 12:i: – from a water runoff sample collected from Tiny Greens Organic Farm; the Salmonella isolated was indistinguishable from the outbreak strain. The several FDA inspections of the sprout growing facility revealed factors that likely led to contamination of the sprouts.

2009 – Salmonella Saintpaul

Jimmy John’s, which the CDC at the time identified at “Restaurant Chain A” was caught up in one of the largest recent sprout-related outbreaks.

A total of 256 were sickened in an outbreak first reported in February by the, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services.  Officials there identified six isolates of Salmonella Saintpaul. Although this is a common strain of Salmonella, in the previous year only three cases had been detected in Nebraska and only four subtypes of this outbreak strain had been identified in the entire USA.

Alfalfa sprout consumption was found in a case study to be significantly related to illness. The initial tracebacks of the sprouts indicated that although various companies had distributed the sprouts, the sprouts from the first cases originated from the same sprouting facility in Omaha.

Forty-two of the illnesses beginning on March 15 were attributed to sprout growing facilities in other states; these facilities had obtained seed from the same seed producer, Caudill Sprouting. The implicated seeds had been sold in many states.

On April 26, the FDA and CDC recommended that consumers not eat raw alfalfa sprouts, including sprout blends containing alfalfa sprouts. In May, FDA alerted sprout growers and retailers that a seed supplier, Caudill Sprouting, was withdrawing all alfalfa seeds with a specific three-digit prefix.

CDC also reported many illnesses occurred at “Restaurant Chain A,” which was later identified as Jimmy John’s.

2008 – E coli O157:NM

An outbreak of E. coli O157:NM in Colorado’s Boulder and Adams counties, including the University of Colorado, was linked to the consumption of alfalfa sprouts from Jimmy John’s franchises in the area.

The sickened, including several UC students, experienced symptoms of bloody diarrhea and cramping with O157 determined to be the cause.  A total of 28 illnesses were associated with the outbreak.

In addition, the environmental investigation identified Jimmy John’s food handlers in Boulder, CO who worked while infected with E. coli. The health department investigation found a number of critical food handling violations, including inadequate hand washing. The 14 isolates from confirmed cases were a genetic match to one another.