A recent outbreak of foodborne illness has sickened at least twelve people in five states. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced last week that raw sprouts at Jimmy John’s restaurants were contaminated with E. Coli bacteria. The contaminated sprouts are believed to have come from one supplier which has been linked to other outbreaks.
Reports of illness in the current outbreak came from Arkansas, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, and Wisconsin. They occurred between December 25, 2011 and January 15, 2012, causing the hospitalization of two victims. Fortunately, no one has died due to illness caused by the outbreak. The victims, all female, ranged in age from nine to forty-nine. Illnesses occurring after January 27 may not be included in the CDC’s report.
The particular strain of E. Coli, O26, is relatively rare. It can cause acute and painful diarrhea and a condition known as hemolytic-uremic syndrome, a potentially fatal condition that can include anemia and kidney failure. It is related to a strain known as O157:H7 that is often found in outbreaks in ground beef.
Jimmy John’s and its suppliers have allegedly been involved in at least two prior outbreaks of foodborne illnesses. An outbreak of salmonella in 2009 sickened over one hundred people in the Midwest, and sprouts were suspected to be the cause of a 2008 E. Coli outbreak in Boulder, Colorado. According to the CDC, sprouts have played a role in four outbreaks linked to Jimmy John’s restaurants around the country since 2008.
After last year’s outbreak, Jimmy John’s reportedly announced that it would switch from alfalfa sprouts to clover sprouts, which are easier to keep clean. Sprouts are generally served raw and are touted as a healthy addition to sandwiches and other dishes. They need warm, moist conditions in which to grow, however, which makes them particularly prone to bacterial growth. With no cooking procedure to kill microorganisms, washing is the only definitive way to protect against contamination.
Jimmy John’s corporate office has not issued any statements on the matter. A reporter for the Syracuse Post-Standard reported on February 20 that a Jimmy John’s location in Syracuse had stopped serving raw sprouts with any of its sandwiches. A similar story appeared in the Kirksville, Missouri Daily Express on February 17. Whether this is a central decision by Jimmy John’s officers or a local decision by one or more restaurants remains to be seen.