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, Idaho, 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, president and owner of Evergreen Fresh Sprouts of Moyie Springs, Idaho, the 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.

The 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 the FDA acknowledges 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 said 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 the agency developed in partnership with the University of California at Davis.

I guess lightning does strike twice in the sprout business?

So, in addition to questioning why a restaurant or grocery store might purchase sprouts from a company with a record like Evergreen’s, you have to wonder why Jimmy John’s has no ability to learn from the past.

Multistate Jimmy John’s Restaurants Raw Clover Sprouts 2011 – 14 Sickened (possibly 19) – On February 15, 2012, the Centers for Disease Control announced an ongoing investigation into illnesses linked to the consumption of raw clover sprouts consumed at Jimmy John’s Restaurants in several states. The number of ill persons identified in each state is as follows: Iowa (5), Missouri (3), Kansas (2), Michigan (2), Arkansas (1), and Wisconsin (1). Among 11 ill persons with information available, 10 (91%) 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%) reported eating a sandwich containing sprouts, and 9 (90%) 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 February 10, 2012, the seed supplier initiated notification of 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.

Sprouters Northwest, Jimmy John’s Restaurants Clover Sprouts 2010 – 7 Sickened – Sprouters Northwest of Kent, Washington, issued a product recall after the company’s clover sprouts had been implicated in an outbreak of Salmonella Newport in Oregon and Washington. At least some of the cases had consumed clover sprouts while at a Jimmy John’s restaurants. Jimmy John’s Restaurants are a restaurant chain that sells sandwiches. Concurrent with this outbreak, a separate Salmonella outbreak (Salmonella, serotype I 4,5,12,i- ; see Multistate Outbreak, Tiny Greens Organic Farm, Jimmy John’s Restaurants), involving alfalfa sprouts served at Jimmy John’s restaurants was under investigation. The recall of Northwest Sprouters products included: clover; clover & onion; spicy sprouts; and deli sprouts. The Sprouters Northwest products had been sold to grocery stores and wholesale operations in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Alaska, British Columbia, Saskatchewan, and Alberta. The FDA inspection found serious sanitary violations.

Multistate Outbreak, Tiny Greens Organic Farm, Jimmy John’s Restaurants Alfalfa Sprouts 2010 – 140 Sickened – On December 17, the Illinois Department of Health announced that an investigation was underway into an outbreak of Salmonella, serotype I4,[5],12:i:-. Many of the Illinois cases had eaten alfalfa sprouts at various Jimmy John’s restaurants in the Illinois counties of: Adams, Champaign, Cook, DuPage, Kankakee, Macon, McHenry, McLean, Peoria, and Will counties. The sprouts were suspected to be the cause of the illnesses. On December 21, Jimmy John Liautaud, the owner of the franchised restaurant chain, requested that all franchisees 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. The Spicy Sprouts contained alfalfa, radish and clover sprouts. On January 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.

CW Sprouts, Inc., SunSprout Sprouts, “restaurant chain (Chain A),” a.k.a. Jimmy Johns 2009 – 256 Sickened – In February, Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services officials identified six isolates of Salmonella Saintpaul. Although this is a common strain of Salmonella, during 2008, only three cases had been detected in Nebraska and only four subtypes of this outbreak strain had been identified in 2008 in the entire USA. As additional reports were made, a case control study was conducted; alfalfa sprout consumption was found to be significantly related to illness. The initial tracebacks of the sprouts indicated that although the sprouts had been distributed by various companies, the sprouts from the first cases originated from the same sprouting facility in Omaha, Nebraska. 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 Seed Company of Kentucky. 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 Seed Company of Kentucky, was withdrawing all alfalfa seeds with a specific three-digit prefix.  Many of the illnesses occurred at “restaurant chain (Chain A).