(UPDATED COVERAGE 3:30 p.m.) Health officials believe an E. coli outbreak is linked to clover sprouts from Evergreen Fresh Sprouts LLC, but the grower says he won’t consider a recall until he sees proof, following an example set by his mother who owned the company in 2011 when a salmonella outbreak spurred an investigation.
Washington state and Idaho health departments reported a total of seven confirmed E. coli 0121 cases as of May 21, with another three suspected cases. Five of the victims were admitted to hospitals. All of the cases were reported in the first two weeks of May.
Nine of the sick people reported eating sprouts on sandwiches from restaurants, including Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches, according to the state health departments. Other restaurants named were Pita Pit and Daanen’s Deli.
“One person couldn’t even remember what they had eaten in the past five days and there aren’t any test results showing anything,” said David Scharf, owner of the Moyie Springs, Idaho, sprout company. “I ate these clover sprouts on the dates they say they were bad and I’m not sick.
“I test and hold product for E. coli and salmonella before I ship. Until they show me a test result I’m not recalling anything.”
Scharf, who bought the company from his mother Nadine Scharf, said officials from the Food and Drug Administration were at his growing operation on May 22. He said no one from the federal government or the state health departments was interested in looking at the stack of test results he has.
The company stopped all production and shipping pending the outcome of the investigation. Scharf said none of his customers, including a nearby U.S. Air Force base, have cancelled orders.
Evergreen tests its seeds and spent sprout water, as recommended by FDA guidance documents, and Scharf said he began doing environmental swabs and testing about a month ago.
The company distributed the suspect clover sprouts to multiple restaurants and retail locations in Washington and Idaho from May 1-15, Scharf said. He estimated Evergreen shipped about 30,000 pounds of sprouts during that time frame.
The FDA is working with the state health departments and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the investigation. FDA spokesman Doug Karas said the agency does not comment on ongoing investigations, but added he thought information would be available on the FDA website May 22.
Scharf said investigators told him they wouldn’t have test results until after Memorial Day.
Sprouts from Evergreen were linked to a salmonella outbreak that occurred from April to June in 2011. At that time, Scharf’s mother initially declined to recall product because she said the government did not have any proof the illnesses were linked to her sprouts.
She eventually issued a recall. Ultimately none of the tests conducted by government officials showed a link between her sprouts and the outbreak. But FDA officials said the interviews with victims clearly implicated the Evergreen sprouts.
The FDA issued a warning letter to Evergreen several months after the 2011 outbreak, citing dirty conditions, leaking water and other deficiencies at the growing facility. A year later, in October 2012, the agency sent a closeout letter to the company saying the problems had been adequately resolved.
Sprouts are considered a high-risk food by the FDA and other agencies. A report published by researchers from Kansas State University in 2013 showed 55 documented outbreaks linked to sprouts in the past two decades. Those outbreaks sickened an estimated 15,000 people.
Outbreaks linked to fresh sprouts are not new for the Jimmy John’s restaurant chain. Health officials linked outbreaks to sprouts served at the restaurants in 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2011. The chain pulled sprouts from its menu at one point, but has reintroduced them.