Sprouts linked to 20 cases of salmonella poisoning

Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Food and Drug Administration is issuing a rare warning to consumers, asking diners to avoid Evergreen Produce brand alfalfa sprouts or spicy sprouts because they may be linked to 20 cases of salmonella poisoning.

The Idaho-based company has not recalled the sprouts though the FDA says they are possibly linked to illnesses in Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota and Washington state. Nadine Scharf, who identified herself as the co-owner of the company, said Monday that the company has stopped producing the alfalfa and spicy sprouts but is not planning to recall them from store shelves.

Scharf said the FDA has asked her to recall the sprouts but that she doesn't believe the agency has enough evidence to link the illnesses to her products. Most of the sprouts have probably been consumed anyway, she said.

The FDA "inspected every nook and cranny, every part of our plant, and that was a week ago and they haven't come up with anything yet," Scharf said. "We'll see. Maybe they will. Who knows."

While the FDA now has the power to force a recall thanks to a food safety law enacted earlier this year, the agency has not yet used that power. FDA generally works with companies to voluntarily issue a recall before it takes more drastic steps.

The agency's warning to consumers Monday is an unusual step that the agency will generally only take if a company refuses to recall a product and officials believe there is possible danger to those who consume it. Salmonella is an organism that can cause serious and sometimes fatal infections in people with weakened immune systems. It can cause diarrhea, fever and vomiting.

In the warning, the FDA urged consumers not to eat alfalfa or spicy sprouts in plastic bags labeled "Evergreen Produce" or "Evergreen Produce Inc." The agency said it believes they were distributed in Idaho, Montana and Washington state. Scharf said that their products are distributed to Spokane, Wash., where they are then sent to other places.

Raw sprouts are a frequent culprit in foodborne illness because of the moist, warm conditions in which they are grown. At least 47 people have died and 4,000 have been sickened in an outbreak of E. coli in Europe that is believed to be caused by sprouts. FDA officials said the two outbreaks are not related.

There have been at least 30 outbreaks associated with raw or lightly cooked sprouts in the United States in the last 15 years.

Scharf said she thinks the publicity over the European outbreak is causing the agency to be more vigilant.

"Recalling the sprouts that are out there would be like saying I am guilty of having bacterially contaminated sprouts, and as of today they haven't documented the fact that any of our sprouts have bacteria in them," she said.