On May 7th, CDC issued a preliminary report on this year's two-pronged Salmonella outbreak that was traced to contaminated alfalfa sprouting seeds.
The seeds, which were imported from Italy by Caudill Seed Company (Louisville, KY), were the source of a strain of Salmonella Saintpaul that infected 228 people in 13 states over a three month period. The investigation was complicated, as Caudill supplied alfalfa seeds to a number of different sprout growers in several states.
The first – and larger – prong of the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak began on February 2nd, according to the Nebraska's Douglas County Health Department. This phase lasted into early March, with a few sporadic cases being reported as late as April 5th – 186 victims in all, 73% of whom reported having eaten alfalfa sprouts.
The first wave of victims – residents of Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota – had consumed sprouts grown by Sunsprout Enterprises, a Nebraska company. Sunsprout purchased its alfalfa seeds from Caudill.
While FDA did not succeed in finding the outbreak strain of Salmonella in alfalfa sprouts supplied by Sunsprout, the agency found a different strain – Salmonella Typhimurium in a sample of the company's sprouts obtained at a Nebraska restaurant. And testing of a sample of alfalfa seeds obtained at the Sunsprout facility yielded yet another strain – Salmonella Give.
While FDA was still investigating the first outbreak, a second wave of illnesses was reported; 42 cases of Salmonella Saintpaul in Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, and West Virginia. Once again, alfalfa sprouts were the most probable source of the pathogen. The implicated sprouts were traced back to the same seed supplier – Caudill Seed Company – but this time, to three different growers, located in Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
On April 26th, FDA and CDC issued a joint warning to consumers to avoid eating raw alfalfa sprouts. And on May 1st, FDA sent a letter to seed suppliers, distributors and sprout growers to remind them of the agency's guidelines on safe growing procedures for seed sprouts.
What happened to the contaminated seeds and sprouts? Caudill agreed to "withdraw" the contaminated seeds. There was no public recall of the imported seeds, as they were never distributed directly to consumers. The Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania growing operations that were the source of alfalfa sprouts in the second wave of illnesses never were identified by name; nor were their sprouts recalled from the marketplace.
Some alfalfa sprout recalls have been announced this year: Jack and the Green Sprouts (WI) in February; Sunsprouts (NE) in March; Jonathan's Sprouts, Inc. (MA) in April; Los Angeles Calco (CA) in April; and Arizona Hydroponic Farming LLC (AZ) in May. Except for Sunsprouts, none of these growers have been implicated by FDA in the Salmonella Saintpaul outbreak. And not a single alfalfa sprout grower in Michigan, Minnesota or Pennsylvania has recalled even one package of sprouts this year.
Which growers were implicated in the second wave of Salmonella illnesses? FDA is not saying. And the CDC outbreak report simply states,
"The degree to which the various sprout growers involved have appropriately and consistently implemented FDA recommendations or other protective methods is under investigation. These outbreaks might indicate a need to determine how well this important but voluntary guidance is being implemented. Additional studies of measures to prevent, detect, and eliminate contamination of seeds and sprouts also are needed."
We do not believe that a general warning against consuming raw sprouts, combined with a general statement that growers' practices are under investigation is enough. The consumer deserves – needs – to know which sprout growers may have cut corners or ignored portions of the FDA guidelines on safe sprouting. It is unfair to tarnish the reputations of conscientious sprout growers by putting all growers in the same category.
FDA has issued specific warnings against consuming products from uncooperative food processors in the past. Why not name the all of the sprout growers implicated in this outbreak?