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Evergreen Produce says no to FDA's request to recall sprouts

by Joan Murphy | June 28, 2011

WASHINGTON -- Twenty reported illnesses in five states prompted the U.S. Food & Drug Administration June 27 to warn consumers not to eat alfalfa or spicy sprouts from Evergreen Produce, a company that is refusing to recall the products.

FDA issued the warning after its probe appeared to link the 20 illnesses -- including one hospitalization due to Salmonella Enteritidis in Idaho, Montana, New Jersey, North Dakota and Washington state -- to Evergreen Produce sprouts.

The warning comes just weeks after Europe identified sprout seeds as the likely cause of a new strain of E. coli outbreak that infected 3,000 people and is blamed for 47 deaths.

FDA inspectors have been in the Moyie Springs, ID, facility for days and has not found Salmonella at the plant, Nadine Scharf, president and co-owner of Evergreen Produce, told The Produce News June 28. The agency is still awaiting laboratory reports on product samples, she said.

"It's all speculation, assumptions," said Ms. Scharf, commenting about FDA's link to the company's products. "We do water testing three times a week and sample our products," she said. The facility undergoes a third-party audit every three months to satisfy military buyers.

The impact of the FDA investigation and outbreak is taking its toll on the 13-people company. "It's really hurting us. We've cut production to one-fourth," she said.

While FDA asked Evergreen Produce to recall its alfalfa and spicy sprouts the week of June 20, Ms. Sharf said that she refused because orchestrating a recall would be "admitting guilt." She added, "Fourteen families eat our sprouts every day and have never become sick."

Instead, she said, the company is not planting anymore until FDA's tests come back negative. The company is still selling mung bean and other varieties.

Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney and founder of the law firm Marler Clark, suggested in his daily blog that FDA could tap newly minted authority to mandate a recall, which is one of the tenets of the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act.

"I have to admit, in two decades of handling foodborne illness cases, I can count on one hand how many times a company has refused to recall a product when linked to illnesses," he said. "It will be interesting to see if the FDA steps up and forces a recall."

FDA is stepping up scrutiny of seed distributors and growers after the European outbreak, said Ms. Sharf. "This thing in Europe has caused people to question sprouts all over," she added.

According to FDA, raw and lightly cooked sprouts have been blamed for at least 30 reported outbreaks since 1996 and should not be eaten by children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems.