OLYMPIA, Wash. - An outbreak of E. coli cases have led state health officials to warn consumers not to eat raw clover sprouts from an Idaho producer. The sprouts under investigation are linked to eight confirmed and two probable cases of E. coli O121 illnesses in Washington and Idaho. Five of those patients were hospitalized; there have been no deaths.
Five cases were reported in Spokane County, two in King County and three in Kootenai County, Idaho.
The state Health Department said all the cases were reported the first two weeks of May.
Results from initial investigations indicate a strong link to eating raw clover sprouts produced by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts, LLC of Idaho. Sprouts were eaten in sandwiches at several food establishments including Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches locations in King and Spokane counties, as well as two Pita Pit locations in Spokane County, and Daanen’s Deli as well as a Jimmy John’s location in Kootenai County. The restaurants where the cases reported eating raw clover sprouts have voluntarily suspended serving sprouts.
Public Health Seattle-King County said the two King County cases were both from the Jimmy John’s at 15253 Bel-Red Road in Bellevue.
Two women were served sprouts. Neither was hospitalized. Both are currently recovering, but needed multiple visits to health care.
Health officials said the Bellevue Jimmy John’s was complying with food handling rules. A local spokesperson for Jimmy John’s said they are cooperating with health officials and have pulled sprouts off of their menu.
Even so, food safety attorney Bill Marler said he has helped clients sue Jimmy John’s for the same problem in the past.
“This is an ongoing problem for Jimmy John’s, and they seem to not be able to get it right. They just simply shouldn’t have brought these back on the market,” Marler said.
The corporate spokesperson for Jimmy John’s said she could not comment on the case.
The producer of the clover sprouts, Evergreen Fresh Sprouts LLC, also distributed sprouts around the northwest to other restaurants, as well as retail grocery stores where consumers may buy them for home consumption.
“We advise people not to eat raw clover sprouts from Evergreen Fresh Sprouts until further notice,” said Washington State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy. “If you have these products at home, you should throw them out.”
While the outbreak appears to be linked to clover sprouts from Evergreen Fresh Sprouts in Idaho, the source of the sprout seed hasn’t yet been determined and remains under investigation.
The owner of Evergreen Fresh Sprouts, David Scharf, said there is no proof that anything is wrong with his product.
“I almost wish they wouldn’t run anything until they get the results back. Because why would you look like an idiot, if there’s nothing wrong with the product?” Scharf said.
Scharf told KIRO 7 he gets consistent lab tests done on his sprouts, and the results have been clean. He said there has been no proven contamination besides the anecdotes of surveys taken from the 10 people who are ill.
The type of E. coli in this outbreak is a strain of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli (STEC O121) similar to E. coli O157:H7. It can cause bloody diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever and vomiting. It can sometimes result in severe, life-threatening illness and may be fatal.
“Anyone who thinks they may have become ill from eating contaminated sprouts should consult their health care provider,” said Lofy. “The elderly and very young children are more likely to become severely ill from Shiga toxin-producing E. coli infection.”
Local and state health officials in Washington and Idaho are investigating, working with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Jeff Duchin, the chief of communicable disease, epidemiology and immunization for the King County Health Department, said sprouts are more susceptible to causing E. coli and salmonella outbreaks.
Duchin said sprout seeds are easily contaminated, and harmful bacteria can get inside the seed.
“They’re hard to decontaminate. They’re hard to clean. We can’t peel a sprout, you can’t wash a sprout like you can wash a bell pepper,” Duchin said.
He said there is a standing warning for children, pregnant women, older people, and people with immune system weaknesses, not to consume sprouts.