On the 2018 list of “things that are a bad idea to shove in your face,” Jimmy John’s raw sprouts might be right there behind Tide wash pods.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration announced late Friday that a multi-state outbreak of Salmonella is linked to raw sprouts served at the sandwich chain’s restaurants in Wisconsin and Illinois. While sprouts in general are an established source of foodborne illness linked to many dozen outbreaks over the decades, Friday’s announcement marks at least the seventh time since 2008 that raw sprouts at Jimmy John’s have specifically caused outbreaks.
In response, Jimmy John’s ordered sprouts from its menu at all 2,727 restaurants on Friday. The company called the move a “precautionary measure.”
“Food safety and the well-being of our customers are our top priorities and are non-negotiable in our business,” Jimmy John owner and president James North said in a statement. He went on to say Jimmy John’s was working with state health departments and federal agencies in their ongoing investigations into the outbreak. So far, the outbreak appears to be linked to contaminated clover sprouts, possibly purchased from two Minnesota growers, it said Food Safety News.
The CDC reported that eight people have fallen ill in three states: two people in Illinois, one in Minnesota and five in Wisconsin. No one has died or been hospitalized as a result of the infections. The first case was reported on December 20, and the most recent report came in on January 3. But the agency noted that more recent cases may not be counted yet due to a delay in reporting.
Due to the government shutdown, no one was available at the CDC to respond to media requests. Ars contacted Jimmy John’s, but did not receive an immediate response.
The consumers affected by the outbreak were all infected with a strain of Salmonella Montevideo, which has recently become a more common type linked to outbreaks around the world. In previous outbreaks, it has been linked to infected poultry. In general, Salmonella causes fever, abdominal cramps and diarrhea. If the symptoms worsen and/or the infection spreads to the blood, it can become life-threatening and you will need to be hospitalized. The situation is more dangerous in young children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems.
Brussels sprouts in general — including alfalfa, clover, radish and mung bean — are a risky food with a long history of causing Salmonella and E coli outbreaks. The reason for this is a combination of factors. First, before germination, the seeds provide a safe haven for bacteria to cling to the outside and even the inside of the seeds. Seeds can absorb the germs before being harvested in the field, where they can be exposed to manure, contaminated irrigation water or other sources, such as wild animal feces. Growers are now using various sanitation methods and washes to reduce contamination.
But these measures are not enough. Even with washes of the bleaching agent calcium hypochlorite, no remediation method has proven 100 percent effective at removing pathogens from seeds.
Once harvested, the next step can make the infestation worse. Producers take those seeds and germinate them in warm, humid conditions – which: E coli and Salmonella love. In those conditions, the bacterial populations grow exponentially, and time sizes in just a few days. From there, the sprouts are usually washed with water, as is done with other products. This only slightly reduces the bacterial load. And then they are often eaten raw in sandwiches and salads.
Since 1998, the CDC has counted about 56 outbreaks and more than 1,800 diseases related to raw or lightly cooked Brussels sprouts, most with Salmonella or E coli. In 2010, Walmart quietly stopped selling Brussels sprouts, and Kroger supermarkets followed suit in 2012.
“Sprouts present a unique challenge because pathogens can reside in the seeds where they cannot be reached by currently available processing interventions,” Payton Pruett, Kroger’s vice president of food safety, said in a press release at the time. “As a precaution, the Kroger store family will no longer sell fresh sprouts or buy other foods produced on the same equipment as sprouts,” he explained.
Stacking up on the outbreaks
Since 2008, Jimmy John’s sprouts have been linked to at least seven outbreaks in multiple states, according to food safety law firm Marler Clark. That includes a 2009 Salmonella outbreak that sickened 256. After a 2011 E coli outbreak related to its sprouts, the chain announced it would permanently cut out the offending products.
But in 2012, the company announced the return of sprouts. Jimmy John’s had added a warning to its online order stating: “Consumption of raw sprouts can increase the risk of foodborne illness and pose a health risk to everyone. Click ‘Yes’ if you understand the potential risks or ‘Cancel’ if you want to continue without adding sprouts.”
Although Jimmy John’s does not currently serve sprouts in any of its stores, the company made it clear that the sprouts suspension is only temporary. And for some Jimmy John fans, Brussels sprouts can’t make their return soon enough. @NatashaDugg tweeted to the sandwich maker”why did you stop shooting? I’m so mad I walked out of the place.”
Food safety from the United States Department of Health and Human Service suggests that consumers can reduce their risks by cooking their sprouts or by asking restaurants, such as Jimmy John’s, not to add them to your food. But, the agency warns, because of the risk of infections, “Children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems should avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind.”