On February 15, 2012 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced a multistate E. coli O26 outbreak linked to clover sprouts that were used in sandwiches sold at Jimmy John’s restaurants. At least 12 people have become ill in the following states: Iowa (5), Missouri (3), Kansas (2), Arkansas (1), and Wisconsin (1).
In the past four years Jimmy John’s has been linked to three other sprout related foodborne illness outbreaks. In 2008, at least 19 E. coli O157:H7 cases were linked to alfalfa sprouts sold at Colorado Jimmy John’s restaurants. In 2009, 228 people became ill in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Kansas after consuming Salmonella contaminated sprouts at multiple locations including Jimmy John’s. Again in 2010, multiple state and federal health authorities linked 94 Salmonella cases to alfalfa and spicy sprouts used in Jimmy John’s sandwiches in 16 states.
The continued use of sprouts in the face of multiple outbreaks has many baffled, including William Marler, a foodborne illness attorney and food safety advocate. “As a business man I am left wondering why a company would continue to take this kind of financial and public relations risk,” said Marler. “As a food safety advocate I am concerned that customer safety is not being taken seriously.”
Jimmy John’s is not the only company to have food safety issues with sprouts. The CDC says the warm, humid growing conditions required for sprouts are ideal for the growth of dangerous pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella. And, though proponents advertise the potential health benefits of sprouts, according to Marler there have been at least 40 sprout related foodborne illness outbreaks since 1990, not including the infamous 2011 European E. coli outbreak linked to sprouts that sickened over 4,000 and killed 50.
“When people think of sprouts, they think of a health food. They aren’t thinking about serious illness, hospitalization, or worse.” Added Marler, “However, the track record for sprouts suggests that consumers ought to know the dangers. And, of course the onus for providing this information falls on those who are selling sprouts.”
Marler suggests that companies include a warning label on sprouts with language similar to the following: