May 21, 2014

Sprouts from N. Idaho producer suspected in E. coli outbreak; owner defends product

Public health officials advise against eating raw clover sprouts
By The Spokesman-Review

Washington and Idaho health officials say people should avoid eating raw clover sprouts from an Idaho producer after the sprouts were linked to seven confirmed and three probable cases of E. coli illness in the Northwest.

The cases include five people in Spokane County, three in Kootenai County and two in King County. All took ill in the past two weeks and five were hospitalized. Nine of the 10 individuals reported eating sprouts in sandwiches served at restaurants about five days before they were sick.

The initial investigation indicates a strong link to spouts supplied by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts of Moyie Springs, Idaho, near Bonners Ferry, the Washington and Idaho state health departments said.

“We advise people not to eat raw clover sprouts from Evergreen Fresh Sprouts until further notice,” said Dr. Kathy Lofy, Washington’s state health officer. “If you have these products at home, you should throw them out.”

Panhandle Health District recommended people avoid eating raw clover sprouts, but the public health agency for North Idaho chose not to name the producer or any of the restaurants where the patients ate sprouts.

“What we have is a lot of circumstantial evidence that certainly says something. But we don’t have final test results yet,” said Cynthia Taggart, Panhandle’s public information officer. “We just want people to know that all the people had the raw clover sprouts and they all got E. coli.”

David Scharf, owner of Evergreen Fresh Sprouts, said state health officials jumped the gun pointing the finger at his business.

“I find that it is very ambiguous to say that my product is bad,” Scharf told The Spokesman-Review.

He said he tests his sprouts before they leave the warehouse and also tests the spent water, according to federal rules. “I have documentation stating my sprouts are good.”

Officials should keep quiet until they know for certain what the source of the infection is, Scharf added.

“It’s kind of sad that we’re going to put the cart before the horse, really,” he said.

Evergreen was singled out in similar investigation in 2011 when the Food and Drug Administration demanded it voluntarily recall products as a salmonella outbreak unfolded, sickening 25 people in five states. Test results showed no bacteria was found in the Evergreen produce at that time, but the FDA stuck by its conclusion the business was the origin of the outbreak.

The clover sprouts suspected in the current E. coli O121 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.

Raw clover sprouts also are sold in delis, supermarkets and specialty food stores. Public health officials advised people who have raw clover sprouts at home to throw them out.

“Until the investigation is complete, we recommend that people avoid consuming raw clover sprouts,” said Mary Petty, Panhandle Health District’s epidemiology program manager.

Public health officials in the region are working with the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate the cause of the illness.

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.

Anyone who’s recently consumed raw clover sprouts and has diarrhea and severe abdominal cramps should seek medical attention.

There are six comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email