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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Sprouts in the Northwest: I have heard this before

This is another it what will be a long – too long – series of outbreak investigations where we have represented consumers in what I hope will be a cautionary tale, and a learning experience, for manufacturers of food.

On January 3, 2011, the Oregon Health Authority issued a News Release warning consumers of a health risk and recall related to clover sprouts produced by Sprouters Northwest, Inc. of Kent, Washington.  The clover sprouts were sold in several states, including Oregon, Washington, and neighboring Canada.  The sprouts were identified as the source of a salmonellosis outbreak, and all Sprouters Northwest-produce clover sprout products were included in the recall.

As of the date of the News Release, at least six people had been sickened; two in Oregon and four in Washington.  No hospitalization or deaths had been reported.

The recalled sprouts were sold at retail stores in 4-ounce and 5-ounce plastic containers; larger 1-pound bags and 2-pound trays were sold to grocery stores and wholesale suppliers, which in turn supplied sprouts to restaurants and other outlets.  The clover varieties included Clover, Clover & Onion, Spicy Sprouts and Deli Sprouts.  All packages carry the Sprouters Northwest brand name.  See Oregon Health Authority New Release of January 3, 2011.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) conducted an on-site inspection of the Sprouters Northwest facility from January 3, 2011 through January 21, 2011.  The agency subsequently issued an FDA Form 483, containing its observations from the investigation.  The FDA Form 483 observations, rife with health and sanitation violations, included the following:

  • Failure to take necessary precautions to protect against contamination of food and food contact surfaces with microorganisms and foreign substances. Listeria monocytogenes was found on the surface of a stainless steel table in the packing room, according to the report. The raw sprouts were stored in unlined plastic crates so the sprouts at the bottom were in contact with pallets and other totes, which previously had been in contact with the floor.
  • Failure to clean food-contact surfaces as frequently as necessary to protect against contamination of food. Food debris and residue was found in the hard-to-clean areas in and around the conveyor belt and sprouts that passed along and got briefly stuck in these areas could fall back into the rinse tank. Inspectors said it appeared that equipment and fixtures in the seed disinfection room were not cleaned between use.
  • Failure to clean non-food-contact surfaces of equipment as frequently as necessary to protect against contamination. Listeria seeligeri was detected on the surface of a brown mass of old, thick food grime on a cross-support place at the top of the rinse incline belt, the report stated.
  • Effective measures are not being taken to protect against contamination of food on the premises by pests. Inspectors said gaps at the bottom of a door and along the roof line could allow pests access to the facility. They said they found rodent excreta pellets in the warehouse and noted that the processing room was accessible from the warehouse.
  • Failure to properly store equipment, remove litter and waste, and cut weeds or grass that may constitute an attractant, breeding place or harborage area for pests, within the immediate vicinity of the plant, building, or structures.
  • Failure to maintain buildings, fixtures, or other physical structures in a sanitary condition. Specifically, there was water build-up along the walls and the floor. Moisture in the walls caused dry rot of door molding at the base of the wall in the sprout growing area, according to health inspectors.
  • Failure to maintain buildings and physical facilities in repair sufficient to prevent food from becoming adulterated. Specifically, inspectors said that an abrupt stream of water followed by intermittent drips was observed falling from the ceiling in the warehouse. The water fell onto a sheet of cardboard that covered a pallet of plastic packaging material used to package the mung bean sprouts.
  • Failure to hold raw materials in bulk or suitable containers so as to protect against contamination.
  • Four to five bags partially filled with seed were stored open or not tightly wrapped inside the warehouse, the inspectors reported.

In short, Sprouters Northwest had a litany of health and sanitation violations reported by the FDA that caused this outbreak.  See FDA Form 483.

Several more outbreaks linked to contaminated sprouts are identified in the chart below, which is based on information gathered from the CDC and the Oregon Department of Health – And, this was just through 2011:

Year

Type

Pathogen

Cases

1990

Alfalfa

S. Anatum

15

1995

Alfalfa

S. Stanley

128

1995

Alfalfa

S. Newport

133

1995

Alfalfa

S. Newport

69

1996

Alfalfa

S. Stanley

30

1996

Alfalfa

S. Montevideo

650

1997

Alfalfa

S. Infantis

109

1997

Alfalfa

E. coli O157:H7

108

1997

Alfalfa

S. Senftenberg

60

1997

Alfalfa

S. Meleagridis

78

1998

Alfalfa

S. Havana

40

1998

Alfalfa

E. coli O157:NM

8

1999

Alfalfa

S. Mbandaka

83

1999

Alfalfa

S. Typhimurium

119

1999

Alfalfa

S. Muenchen

61

1999

Alfalfa

S. paratyphi B

51

1999

Alfalfa

Salmonella spp.

34

1999

Alfalfa

S. Muenchen

38

1999

Clover

S. Saintpaul

36

2000

Mung

S. Enteritidis

75

2000

Mung

S. Enteritidis

12

2001

Alfalfa

S. Kottbus

32

2001

Alfalfa

Salmonella spp.

22

2001

Mung

S. Enteritidis

84

2002

Alfalfa

E. coli O157:H7

7

2003

Alfalfa

S. Saintpaul

9

2003

Alfalfa

S. Chester

26

2003

Alfalfa

E. coli O157:H7

7

2003

Alfalfa

S. Saintpaul

16

2003

Alfalfa

E. coli O157:NM

13

2004

Alfalfa

Salmonella spp.

12

2005

Alfalfa

E. coli O157:H7

1

2005

Mung

Salmonella spp.

648

2006

Bean

S. Braenderup

4

2008

Alfalfa

S. Typhimurium

13

2009

Alfalfa

S. Saintpaul

6

2009

Alfalfa

S. Saintpaul

235

2010

Alfalfa

S. Newport

43

2010

Alfalfa

S. I4,[5],12:i:-

112

2011

Clover

S. Newport

6