Although the grower and seed supplier say government officials told them tests came back clean, the Food and Drug Administration declared contaminated sprout seeds are the likely cause of an E. coli outbreak.
Eighteen people in five states are confirmed to have been sickened with E. coli 0121 infections from May 1-20. Additional illnesses could still be identified because of up to three weeks lag time between exposure and lab confirmation, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Contaminated seeds used by Evergreen Produce, Moyie Springs, Idaho, are likely the root cause of the E. coli 0121 outbreak, according to the FDA, which also reported food safety issues at the growing facility. FDA officials have declined comment because of the agency’s policies regarding ongoing investigations.
Confirmed illnesses so far have sent almost half of the victims to hospitals, but the grower David Scharf has not issued a recall, maintaining there is no proof his fresh sprouts are the cause.
Scharf said all of the tests the government has done on his sprouts collected from restaurants and his operation, plus tests they did on equipment, water and seeds, have come back negative for the outbreak strain and other pathogens.
“They can’t prove anything with microbiology,” Scharf said June 30. “All they have is peoples’ memories with the epidemiology and that’s not proof.”
Jack Zimmer, co-owner of Pineview Horticulture Services Inc., Hayden, Idaho, said the FDA took 30 one-pound samples of crimson clover seed from his business.
“They said it all came back clear with no shiga toxin producing E. coli,” Zimmer said, “but they said they would prefer that I change lots.”
Zimmer said he ordered a new lot. He said he has 700 pounds of seed from the lot FDA tested, which he will either return to his supplier or sell for agricultural purposes other than human consumption. He said he was not surprised the tests were negative because he tests seed when he receives it and did not get any positive results for the suspect lot.
Scharf said he tests his finished sprouts, spent water and surfaces in his facility for E. coli 0157, but not for the 0121 strain that is linked to the current outbreak.
Epidemiological investigations by state and federal authorities showed the Evergreen sprouts as the only common food consumed by 12 out of 14 of the sick people.
In its update, the FDA reported contaminated Evergreen clover sprouts may still be in the stream of commerce and urged consumers to avoid eating them. Similar warnings from the Washington state and Idaho health departments have been in place since May.
Scharf said FDA officials called him June 26 and told him the seeds used for the suspect sprouts may be contaminated, even though the tests were negative. Scharf told the officials he would stop using the suspect seed lot. He said he plans to begin clover sprout production again as soon as he receives a new lot.
According to its outbreak update, the FDA inspected the Evergreen growing facility on May 22-23, May 27-30 and June 6. Scharf had stopped production of clover sprouts but was still producing mung bean and alfalfa sprouts at those times.
Inspectors cited multiple problems at the Evergreen facility, including condensation dripping directly into sprouting vats that contained growing sprouts. Inspectors also saw employees use tennis rackets that had scratched and chipped surfaces, frayed plastic parts and sponge-type handles to scoop sprouts from a harvester and onto a conveyor belt.
Despite the problems, the agency had not posted a warning letter to Evergreen or Scharf on its website as of June 30 and Scharf said he had not received any written warnings.
He said the tennis racket used to scoop up sprouts are made of titanium and plastic. He said he routinely swabs the rackets, a stainless steel pitchfork also used to handle sprouts and other equipment and surfaces to test for foodborne pathogens. He has never received a positive test result, he said.
Additional problems at Evergreen Produce cited in the FDA’s June 27 update included:
- Pipe ends, which cannot be flushed, in the sprout growing/harvesting room. The pipes provide water to rinse and mist sprouts in the room;
- Apparent mold growth and dripping condensate on a water pipe attached to the watering system in the sprout growing/harvesting room;
- Rust and corrosion on the mung bean room watering system directly above the sprouts and orange buildup on a pipe attached to the system being used to water the sprouts on at least four occasions;
- An employee using a pitchfork with corroded metal and rough welds to transfer mung bean sprouts into plastic tubs, and the same pitchfork being stored in direct contact with mung bean sprouts during the harvesting process;
- Mung bean sprouts in direct contact with rusty and corroded clamps used to hold the growing cabin together;
- Rough welds, debris and apparent corroded areas inside the mung bean seed soak vat. An employee was using a squeegee with corroded metal and non-treated wood to agitate mung beans soaking inside the mung bean seed soak vat; and
- Cracked, damaged, and chipped food contact surfaces on sprouting vats that contained growing sprouts, on storage bins that contained finished broccoli and alfalfa sprouts, and on mung bean growing cabins with mung beans present.