Although the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning to consumers June 27 to not eat alfalfa sprouts from Evergreen Produce because of possible salmonella contamination, the owner of the company declined to recall her product until the agency could provide “hard evidence.”

The Idaho Department of Health & Welfare is investigating a number of cases believed to be connected to the consumption of alfalfa sprouts, according to the FDA.

Nadine Scharf owns 23-year-old Evergreen Produce Inc., Moyie, Idaho. She said June 27 that someone reported to health officials that they had gotten sick after eating Evergreen sprouts in recent weeks, but that there haven’t been any new illnesses reported since June 2.

“The FDA encouraged us to do a recall but I said I needed to see hard evidence that our sprouts were involved,” Scharf said. “They are down to only three cases now. It started out that they thought 20 people were sick, then they dropped that number to six and now it’s down to three. And they say it will be a week before any tests results will be available.”

In a June 27 news release, FDA officials pointed out that the possible salmonella contamination is not the same strain as was responsible for dozens of deaths and thousands of illnesses in Europe.

Charles Breen, the FDA district director in Bothell, Wash., confirmed June 27 that the agency had taken swab samples at Evergreen Produce, but he declined to provide any other details.

“This is an open investigation,” Breen said, adding that he did not know how long the investigation would take. “It depends on where the evidence leads us.”

Emily Simnitt, public information officer for the Idaho Health and Welfare Department, said three confirmed cases of salmonella had been logged in Idaho in recent weeks, but that no new cases had been reported as of June 27. She said one of the three sick people reported eating Evergreen Produce brand sprouts, but she declined further comment.

Details from the FDA’s main office were not too specific, either.

“I unfortunately can’t share details about FDA’s investigation other than what’s been made public in the press release,” said FDA public affairs spokeswoman Stephanie Yao.

Although the agency has the power under the new Food Safety Modernization Act to mandate a recall, it had not done so as of June 28.

“As this investigation proceeds, FDA is exploring all options available under the law to ensure the product is taken off the market as quickly and expeditiously as possible,” Yao said.

The agency’s warning was specific: “The FDA is advising consumers not to eat Evergreen Produce brand alfalfa sprouts and spicy sprouts. The sprouts are possibly linked to 20 reported cases, including one hospitalization, of Salmonella Enteritidis in Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota and Washington State. The strain of S. Enteritidis is rarely seen at this frequency.”

According to the FDA notice, the sprouts are in 4-ounce and 16-ounce plastic bags with pre-printed labels. They are also packaged in 1-pound and 5-pound plastic bags with stick-on labels.

The spicy sprouts are packaged in 4-ounce plastic bags with pre-printed labels and 1-pound plastic bags with stick-on labels.

“To date, the FDA is aware of distribution in Idaho, Montana and Washington State. However, consumers and retailers in neighboring states should check the product label to ensure they are not eating or selling Evergreen Produce brand alfalfa sprouts or spicy sprouts,” according to the FDA notice.

The FDA, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and public health agencies in those states where illnesses have occurred are investigating the outbreak.

June 28 the CDC issued a statement, increasing the number of sick people to 21 with three having been hospitalized. The illnesses began April 12 and continued to be reported through June 7, the CDC reported. However, because of the two- to three-week lag time in reporting the agency said additional people may have become sick after June 9.  

Scharf said government officials took swab samples throughout her hydroponic growing operation, but she said the first batch of samples was sent to the wrong place. So, more swabs were taken and Scharf is still awaiting results. FDA officials declined to comment on that statement.

In the meantime, she laid off half of her 14 employees and shut down production of her alfalfa and spicy sprout lines as a precautionary move.

“If I had the money I would be fighting what they (FDA and Idaho state health officials) have done,” Scharf said. “They have issued that statement and smeared us without any evidence.”

Scharf said Evergreen Produce always tests its seed lots before using them. The company has third-party water tests done three times each week.

“The military also comes in once every quarter for an audit and we always pass those without any problems,” Scharf said.