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FDA finds problems at N. Idaho sprouts grower

A clover sprout from Evergreen Fresh Sprouts in 2012. (File)
A clover sprout from Evergreen Fresh Sprouts in 2012. (File)

E. coli outbreak sickens 17 in 5 states

Federal inspectors found numerous sanitation problems at a North Idaho sprouts grower linked to a recent E. coli outbreak.

U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspections in the last three weeks found rusty and corroded watering systems and corroded implements used in growing and harvesting sprouts at Evergreen Fresh Sprouts LLC of Moyie Springs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 17 people in Idaho, Washington and three other states were infected in the outbreak of E. coli O121. Eight of them were hospitalized.

The investigation indicates a strong link to raw clover sprouts from Evergreen, officials said. An FDA traceback analysis determined that the grower supplied sprouts to seven restaurants where nine of infected persons had eaten shortly before they became ill. Eight of them recalled eating sprouts.

E. coli is a bacterial infection that causes diarrhea, often bloody, as well as severe abdominal cramps, vomiting and a low-grade fever. Most people recover in five to seven days, but E. coli can be severe and life-threatening, particularly for very young children and the elderly.

Samples taken by the FDA did not yield the shiga toxin producing E. coli bacteria that caused the outbreak. However, microbial contamination in food is not expected to be uniform but rather clustered and localized, FDA spokeswoman Lauren Sucher said.

“In other words, one can test a portion from a large batch and find it to be negative, but this does not mean we can conclude that the rest of the batch is not contaminated,” Sucher said. “Hence, although the samples tested by the FDA did not yield the pathogen that caused the outbreak, this does not necessarily mean that there was no contamination present.”

The short shelf life for sprouts also poses a challenge for testing. David Scharf, owner of Evergreen, said last month that by the time officials took samples of his clover sprouts to test, the batches of sprouts in question were gone – consumed or already tossed out. Scharf also said his own product testing found no presence of the harmful bacteria before he shipped the sprouts.

The clover sprouts suspected in the outbreak were eaten in sandwiches at Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches in King and Spokane counties, two Pita Pit locations in Spokane County, and Daanen’s Deli and a Jimmy John’s in Kootenai County, Washington state health officials said. The restaurants voluntarily suspended serving sprouts, officials said.

The FDA inspected Evergreen May 22-23, May 27-30 and June 6. The grower already had ceased producing clover sprouts but was still producing mung bean and alfalfa sprouts. FDA investigators observed:

•Dead leg pipe ends, which cannot be flushed, inside the sprout growing/harvesting room. The pipes provide water to rinse and mist sprouts.

•Apparent mold growth and dripping condensate on a water pipe that had separated from the drywall and was attached to the watering system in the sprout growing/harvesting room.

•Condensate dripping directly into sprouting vats containing growing sprouts.

•A rusty and corroded mung bean room watering system located directly above the mung beans, with a pipe attached to the system with an orange buildup, used to water mung beans on at least four occasions.

•Two employees using tennis rackets with scratches, chips, frayed plastic and sponge-type handles to scoop mung bean sprouts from the water in the harvester onto the belt which fed the sprouts into finished product storage bins, and using the same rackets the following day in the bubbler during alfalfa sprout harvesting.

•An employee using a pitchfork with visible 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 during sprout growth in the mung bean room.

•Rough welds, debris and apparent corroded areas inside the mung bean seed soak vat. An employee used a squeegee with visible corroded metal and non-treated wood to agitate mung beans soaking inside the seed soak vat.

•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.

Evergreen was encouraged to respond to the findings in writing with a corrective action plan and implement that plan expeditiously, Sucher said.