Tests at a North Idaho sprouts plant failed to turn up traces of salmonella after the government in June linked an outbreak of food-borne salmonella poisoning to two types of sprouts from the business.
Nadine Scharf, owner of Evergreen Fresh Produce in Moyie Springs, says her company is on the verge of collapse after customers stopped filling orders in the weeks following the government action.
Scharf said she complied with a request by officials to voluntarily recall alfalfa sprouts and a spicy sprouts mix.
Since then, she has laid off 10 of her 14 workers and sold three vehicles to raise cash to pay her bills, she said.
“We are about down to nothing,” she said of her losses in recent weeks.
At the same time, test results dated last Thursday showed no traces of salmonella at her plant or in products taken for testing.
The tests were done on dozens of packages of sprouts, seeds, wash water and processing surfaces.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration confirmed those results on Wednesday.
But Stephanie Yao, spokeswoman for the FDA in Washington, D.C., said that negative test results do not rule out the Evergreen sprouts as the cause of the outbreak. She said that the pathogen may have been contaminating only one portion of the food.
In early July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that 25 persons in five states were sickened with salmonella that CDC investigators said was connected to eating spicy sprouts and alfalfa sprouts from Evergreen. Three of the cases resulted in hospitalization. The last illness was reported on July 5.
The cases involved 10 people from Washington, three from Idaho and 10 from Montana.
The FDA said that since 1996 there have been 30 reported outbreaks of food-borne illnesses connected to raw or lightly cooked sprouts.
Scharf said her plant for years has followed a careful protocol of human hygiene, tests on wash water, quarterly inspections and routine disinfections. Her plant has always had a clean record, she said.
“We’ve never had any contaminants in here,” she said of her 23-year-old business, which had been producing 6,000 pounds of sprouts a week.
She continues to produce small amounts of mung bean, clover and broccoli sprouts.
“Hopefully our business can get back on an even keel again,” she said.
Scharf criticized the FDA and CDC for being quick to alert the public to a food-borne illness, but then falling silent when test results come back negative.
The FDA’s Yao said the agency routinely does not comment on test results when an investigation is ongoing.