Scott Maben of The Spokesman-Review reported this week that Washington and Idaho health officials say people should avoid eating raw clover sprouts from an Idaho producer after the sprouts were linked to seven confirmed and three probable cases of E. coli illness in the Northwest. The cases include five people in Spokane County, three in Kootenai County and two in King County. All took ill in the past two weeks and five were hospitalized. Nine of the 10 individuals reported eating sprouts in sandwiches served at restaurants about five days before they were sick. The initial investigation indicates a strong link to spouts supplied by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts of Moyie Springs, ID, near Bonners Ferry, the Washington and Idaho state health departments said. The clover sprouts suspected in the current E. coli O121 outbreak were eaten in sandwiches at Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches in King and Spokane counties, two Pita Pit locations in Spokane County, and Daanen’s Deli and a Jimmy John’s in Kootenai County, Washington state health officials said. The restaurants voluntarily suspended serving sprouts, officials said. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 50-percent hospitalization rate. According to Maben, David Scharf, owner of Evergreen Fresh Sprouts, said state health officials jumped the gun pointing the finger at his business. “I find that it is very ambiguous to say that my product is bad,” Scharf told The Spokesman-Review.  He said he tests his sprouts before they leave the warehouse and also tests the spent water, according to federal rules. “I have documentation stating my sprouts are good.” Officials should keep quiet until they know for certain what the source of the infection is, Scharf added. “It’s kind of sad that we’re going to put the cart before the horse, really,” he said. Sounded a bit familiar. Food Safety News reported in 2011 that federal inspectors documented unsanitary conditions and food-safety lapses at the Idaho sprout-growing facility implicated in an outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis illnesses earlier this year, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In a warning letter sent Oct. 19 to Nadine Scharf, former president and owner of Evergreen Fresh Sprouts, FDA says it found dirty pipes dripping onto uncovered sprouts and employees not donning clean gloves or aprons before they worked with sprouts. In late June, Scharf initially balked at recalling sprouts that had been linked to about 20 Salmonella infections in five states. Nine of the first 13 people sickened in the outbreak had reported eating the alfalfa sprouts before they became ill, but Scharf told local media she wanted “concrete evidence” that her sprouts had caused the outbreak. FDA and Idaho public health officials took the unusual step of warning consumers not to eat Evergreen Produce-brand alfalfa sprouts or spicy sprouts. Scharf later relented and agreed to recall the sprouts, and FDA acknowledged her cooperation in the warning letter. As of July 6, the Salmonella outbreak had sickened 25 people in Washington, Montana, Idaho, North Dakota and New Jersey and sent at least three people to the hospital, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although sprout samples and surfaces inside the Evergreen facility did not test positive for Salmonella, the FDA warning letter says its investigators “documented insanitary conditions and practices that may have contributed directly or indirectly to contamination of your sprouts with pathogens,” and that the sprouts were considered to be adulterated, as defined by federal law. Among the conditions and practices FDA said it observed:

  • Workers operating hoist controls and then handling sprouts without washing and sanitizing or changing their gloves
  • Workers leaving the production area and building without removing gloves or aprons and then returning to handle sprouts without sanitizing or changing the clothing
  • A worker donning an apron by lowering it until it touched the floor, then stepping into it
  • Dirty, apparently mold-covered waterlines on the ceiling dripping condensate into uncovered vats of germinated sprouts
  • Dirt and sprout residue on the ceiling above the bean harvester tank and the bean soak tank
  • A dirty oscillating fan blowing directly onto sprouts awaiting spin drying
  • A dirty cooling blower in the refrigerated truck used to deliver sprouts
  • Inoperable floor drains, which caused pooled water that workers walked through and that could splash onto food-contact surfaces or sprouts
  • A pitchfork, used on finished sprouts, stored in a dirty bucket
  • Bean sprout residue inside equipment after employees said the equipment had been cleaned and was ready to use

The FDA warning letter said investigators provided Scharf with the agency’s 1999 guidance on how to reduce microbial food safety hazards for sprouts and also referred her to videos related to sprout safety which the agency developed in partnership with the University of California-Davis. I guess lightning does strike twice in the sprout business?