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FDA warns Jimmy John's, Marion supplier Sprouts Unlimited over sprouts linked to E. coli

The FDA says Jimmy John's locations have been implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks in at least 17 states. (The Gaze
The FDA says Jimmy John’s locations have been implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks in at least 17 states. (The Gazette)

National chain Jimmy John’s and a Marion-based wholesale food service distributor last week were issued letters from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, over a reported link between their vegetables and multiple cases of E. coli.

According to the FDA’s letter, the Champaign, Ill.-based sandwich chain “engaged in a pattern of receiving and offering for sale adulterated fresh produce, specifically clover sprouts and cucumbers,” resulting in five outbreaks of E. coli and salmonella nationwide over seven years.

Most recently, in Iowa, an E. coli outbreak sickened 22 people between Nov. 21 and Dec. 14, per the FDA.

In interviews with 20 of the 22 individuals, the Iowa Department of Public Health learned all had eaten at one or more of 15 Jimmy John’s restaurants. Nine interviewees said they ate sprouts in the week before their illness.

The FDA inspected Sprouts Unlimited Inc. of Marion between late December and early January, its letter says.

Pathogen analysis of 16 clover sprout samples, plus two spent sprout irrigation water, or SSIW, samples, yielded E. coli in 15 sprout samples and one SSIW sample, according to the FDA.

Responding to allegations of federal food safety violations, Sprouts Unlimited told the FDA it has developed lot number and tracking systems for sprouts, put sprout products on hold, and trained employees on surface cleaning procedures.

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The FDA acknowledged the responses, but said it was “unable to evaluate (their) adequacy” before a future inspection.

Both Jimmy John’s and Sprouts Unlimited have been asked to respond to the FDA within 15 working days.

In a news release, the FDA said Jimmy John’s locations have been implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks in at least 17 states.

“Jimmy John’s has not demonstrated implementation of long-term sustainable corrections to its supply chain to assure the safety of ingredients used in its products,” said Frank Yiannas, the agency’s deputy commissioner for food policy and response.

“Food safety is our top priority,” Jimmy John’s President James North told the Chicago Tribune in an email. “We’ve removed sprouts from all Jimmy John’s restaurants until further notice. This removal was out of an abundance of caution and was not initiated by any known, immediate threat.”

The Gazette has reached out to Sprouts Unlimited for comment.

Atlanta-based Inspire Brands, which also owns Arby’s Buffalo Wild Wings, Sonic Drive-In and Rusty Taco, bought Jimmy John’s in October for an undisclosed sum.

Comments: (319) 398-8366; thomas.friestad@thegazette.com

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