The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has found tennis rackets being used to scoop mung bean sprouts onto the conveyor belt during inspections at a facility linked to an outbreak of E.coli O121 which has sickened 17 people.
The agency said two employees were seen using tennis rackets with scratches, chips, frayed plastic, and sponge-type handles to scoop the sprouts from the water in the harvester onto the belt which fed them into finished product storage bins.
The same rackets were used the following day in the bubbler during alfalfa sprout harvesting.
FDA inspection findings
FDA conducted three inspections of Evergreen Fresh Sprouts on May 22-23, May 27-30, and June 6..
It is investigating a multi-state outbreak of E. coli O121 infections linked to eating raw clover sprouts from Evergreen Fresh Sprouts, of Moyie Springs, Idaho.
A FDA spokesman told FQN that the product samples taken did not yield the shiga toxin producing E. coli (STEC) bacteria that caused the outbreak.
"However, microbial contamination in food is not expected to be uniform but rather clustered and localized. In other words, one can test a portion from a large batch and find it to be negative, but this does not mean we can conclude that the rest of the batch is not contaminated," he said.
"Although the samples tested by the FDA did not yield the pathogen that caused the outbreak, this does not necessarily mean that there was no contamination present."
He added there is strong epidemiology and traceback evidence connecting Evergreen raw clover sprouts to this outbreak.
Evergreen Fresh Sprouts had ceased the production of clover sprouts, but mung bean sprouts and alfalfa sprouts were still being produced.
17 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Shiga toxin-producing E.coliO121 (STEC O121) have been reported from five states, in the June 9 update from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The number of people sickened by state is: Idaho (3), Michigan (1), Montana (2), Utah (1), and Washington (10).
47% of ill persons have been hospitalized but none have developed hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) or died.
FDA investigators observed condensate and irrigation water dripping from rusty valves into sprouting vats containing growing sprouts and a rusty and corroded mung bean room watering system.
They also found a pitchfork with corroded metal being used to transfer mung bean sprouts into plastic tubs during harvest; and a squeegee with visible corroded metal and non-treated wood being used to agitate mung bean seeds inside a soak vat.
Epidemiology and traceback investigations indicated that contaminated raw clover sprouts produced by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts are the likely source of the outbreak.
Illness dates range from May 1, to May 20, the age of those affected ranges from 11 to 45 years, with a median of 27 years and seventy-six percent of ill persons are female.
In interviews, 12 (86%) of 14 ill persons reported eating raw clover sprouts in the week before becoming ill.
This is higher than results from a survey of healthy persons in which 8% reported eating raw clover sprouts in the week before they were interviewed.
FDA performed a traceback analysis and determined that Evergreen Sprouts LLC, prior to the outbreak, supplied sprouts to seven restaurants at which nine people who became ill reported eating before they were sickened.
It is not the first time the firm has been caught up in an outbreak investigation.
According to CDC, from April 12 to July 5, 2011 , 25 people infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Enteritidis were reported from five states.
Results of the investigation indicated a link to eating alfalfa sprouts and spicy sprouts manufactured by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts.
On July 1, 2011, Evergreen Fresh Sprouts announced a recall of specific lots of alfalfa sprouts and spicy sprouts because they had the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.