Washington and Idaho health officials say people should avoid eating raw clover sprouts from a North 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 became 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 sprouts supplied by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts of Moyie Springs, Idaho, near Bonners Ferry, the Washington and Idaho state health departments said Wednesday.
“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 echoed that advisory but 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, faulted state health officials for acting before they have the results of lab tests on his sprouts. Anecdotal evidence “doesn’t prove anything,” he said.
“They’re not being thorough,” Scharf said Wednesday.
He said he tests his sprouts thoroughly to prove they are safe to eat. “When it left my farm … my sprouts were good,” he said.
In this case the epidemiological evidence is strong, the company name is part of the public record, and health officials want to be specific in advising the public which sprouts to avoid, said Donn Moyer, spokesman for the Washington state Department of Health.
“The information that we have shows a strong link, and we believe it’s our responsibility to let people know this information so they can make an informed decision to protect their health,” Moyer said.
Evergreen was singled out in a similar investigation in 2011 when the Food and Drug Administration asked it to 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.
Scharf declined to voluntarily recall his clover sprouts at this time, and he said he’ll have to toss about 30,000 pounds of sprouts as a result of the actions of the health agencies. He remains skeptical his product is the source of the outbreak.
“If we had a problem with our sprouts, it would be more than 10 people” reporting illness, he said. “We ship out of our company here close to 70,000 pounds of sprouts – alfalfa, clover, spicy and mung bean – each month.”
On the dates in question Evergreen delivered close to 40,000 pounds of clover sprouts, and about half of that was in 4-ounce packages, Scharf said.
“So if there was a real problem, we’d have a real outbreak,” he said. “Our sprouts are everywhere, not just in Seattle and Spokane.”
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. Test results on Evergreen’s sprouts are expected this week.
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.