The change, already in place in some markets, will take full effect sometime in April. Beaumont, Texas-based Jason’s Deli has more than 230 restaurants in 28 states.
It is replacing sprouts with organic spinach and field greens.
“We’ve lost confidence in sprouts,” said Daniel Helfman, Jason’s Deli director of public relations. “We’re all about food safety and the health and wellness of our customers. Bottom line, when you look at what’s occurred with sprouts just in the last year or so, the recalls and warnings, it’s enough that we feel we have to walk away for all of 2012 and maybe 2013.”
“It’s certainly not good news for us,” said Bob Sanderson, president of the International Sprout Growers Association. “A recall is almost the equivalent of an outbreak in the public consciousness. That’s unfortunate.
“Finding a pathogen in a product is a very serious thing, but were people sick? It would be useful if (testing agencies) provided microbial counts.”
There have been 24 recalls of sprouts since 2007, mostly for salmonella and listeria found in random samples, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
From 2008-10, eight outbreaks and 509 illnesses were reported to the FDA. Data is subject to various limits; for one, FDA tracks only commodities marketed interstate, FDA policy analyst Sebastian Cianci said.
Jason’s Deli has already implemented its change in Texas and New Mexico. Sprouts were pulled from menus there initially in response to a December voluntary recall of 6,723 cases of alfalfa and onion sprouts by Dallas-based Green Valley Food Corp.
“Those weren’t our lot numbers, but we pulled them as a precautionary measure as we have before,” Helfman said.
Taking sprouts off the menu had been under discussion for some time.
“This was an ongoing conversation,” he said. “We talked about this as a possibility in 2011 but decided then that it was premature and we were overreacting. But more cases kept bringing up the issue and enough is enough. Can you name one other ingredient out there where we’ve had so many issues?”
Comments from other foodservice operators suggest contrasting views on sprouts’ viability.
“We took them off the menu at Sweet Tomatoes eight to 10 years ago just because of the well-documented food-safety risk of serving sprouts,” said Tracy Marks, spokeswoman for San Diego-based Garden Fresh Restaurant Corp. “We always want to have an abundance of caution for our guests.”
Eric Tadda, director of marketing at Lenexa, Kan.-based Mr. Goodcents Subs & Pastas, said his company retains plans for sprouts.
“We have a couple sandwich recipes queued up for short-term promotions or offerings that have not been rolled out yet,” Tadda said. “It plays well seasonally with our health and wellness message. Our main concern is shelf life and proper display. We don’t typically have other concerns. Our suppliers wouldn’t put anything in our restaurants that would put our customers at risk.”
The menu at Denver-based Quiznos Restaurants has included limited-time offerings of sprouts.
“We don’t have a position on the recalls or Jason’s Deli, but food safety plays a part in our menu planning,” said Ellen Kramer, a Quiznos consultant. “Safety is the No. 1 concern.”
Subway has never had sprouts on its menu.
“We have our core set of vegetables people seem to enjoy and we stick with that core, apart from adding avocado,” said Subway spokeswoman Alison Goldberg. “We’ve never tested sprouts.”
Jimmy John’s continues to offer sprouts in most markets. Shortly after the Green Valley Food Corp. recall, the chain temporarily dropped sprouts in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and two Missouri locations — Kansas City and Jefferson City. As of mid-January, that move was still in effect.
The menu change at Jason’s Deli was decided at a Jan. 18 company meeting. The next day, Miami-based Leasa Industries Co. announced a voluntary recall of 346 cases of alfalfa sprouts in five Southern states. Jacksonville, Fla.-based Winn-Dixie Stores pulled four more varieties of Leasa sprouts.
Jason’s Deli had no connection to those events in retail, but the news confirmed the position just taken, Helfman said.
“The sprout industry is trying to restore confidence, but that’s just going to take time,” he said. “I can’t imagine other restaurants aren’t looking at this.”
No illness has been reported in connection with the two recent sprout recalls.
In December 2010, a salmonella outbreak that sickened 112 in Illinois and other states was linked by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to Tiny Greens alfalfa sprouts eaten at Jimmy John’s restaurants.
Urbana, Ill.-based Tiny Greens Organic Farm issued a voluntary recall.
“Jimmy John’s in particular may still be reeling from when they were involved in a pretty bad outbreak coming out of Illinois,” Sanderson told The Packer shortly after the Green Valley recall. “We really need to get beyond these problems. We’re trying to hang in there. We’ve just initiated a sprout safety alliance which is supposed to be related to the Produce Safety Alliance.”
Last June, The Associated Press reported that sprouts had been identified as the cause of an E. coli outbreak in Germany that killed 31 and sickened more than 3,000.
German officials subsequently backtracked on that finding. Authorities there advised consumers to stop eating sprouts, but also raw cucumbers, leafy greens and tomatoes.
The culprit in that outbreak, sprouts grown from tainted fenugreek seeds from Egypt, is not on the U.S. market, Sanderson said.