(UPDATED, March 18) Sprout grower A Chau Sprouting Co., Gretna, La., may be permanently shut down, pending the outcome of a complaint filed by the Department of Justice.

UPDATED: Injunction filed against sprout grower

The department filed the complaint March 6, seeking a permanent injunction against the company, its owner, Quang “Mike” Trinh, and its production manager, Hue Nguyen, responding to direction from the Food and Drug Administration.

The charges against the company, Trinh and Nguyen include preparing, packing and holding alfalfa and mung bean sprouts under insanitary conditions, according to court documents.

In five FDA inspections over the past nine years, the company failed to implement basic food sanitation principles and practices. Its violations include unclean equipment and facilities, unsanitary employee practices and a poorly maintained facility.

“The agency has repeatedly warned the company over several years that corrective actions need to be taken in this facility,” Michael Chappell, acting associate commis-sioner for regulatory affairs at the FDA, said in a news release.

No illnesses related to this company have been reported, but the action was necessary to ensure it remains that way, Chappell said.

The sprout company did not answer its phone March 17-18.

During the FDA’s most recent inspection, which was conducted in August or September 2009, the investigator noted unsanitary conditions during every stage of production activities, according to court documents.

The inspection found, among other violations:

  • Use of a worn and scratched wooden paddle encrusted with residue to remove alfalfa sprouts from an automated tumble grower;
  • Metal shelving covered with green, black and brown residue used to store trays of growing alfalfa sprouts. The shelving’s construction did not allow for proper cleaning;
  • Green, black and brown residue also covered overhead watering system pipes, and portions of the system routinely came into contact with growing alfalfa sprouts;
  • Rust and corrosion on the overhead watering system for mung bean sprouts;
  • Rust and dirt covering the interiors of stainless steel growing vats that held raw mung beans;
  • Brown and black residue covering a de-hulling machine used for mung bean sprouts. Parts of the machine routinely came into contact with sprouts;
  • Brown and black residue covered plastic colanders used to assist in de-hulling process;
  • Storage of mung bean sprouts in perforated buckets encrusted with dirty residue. Buckets were stored uncovered on wet, dirty floors in a room with high foot traffic and pallet jack use during the day, then transported on a rusty cart to a cooler overnight, where they were stacked, causing the dirty bottoms of buckets to sit directly on top of uncovered buckets;
  • Congested storage space for raw mung beans with bags stacked haphazardly and stored too close to walls;
  • Packaging of sprouts on tables and scales that were corroded and covered with residue, and allowing raw sprouts to touch unsanitized plastic bags, writing utensils, utility gloves, cleaning rags and a phone. Scales and the machines used to seal plastic bags were also filthy;
  • Walls, floors and air vents covered with filth;
  • Garbage storage outside an entry door, and an outside door with a gap that could allow pests inside the facility, and;
  • Inadequate hand-washing facilities.

Similar conditions were noted in an April 2008 inspection, and in previous inspections, rodent excreta and dead roaches were found in the facility.

As early as 2000, the company was receiving warning letters from the FDA. Trinh also had a regulatory meeting with the FDA in August 2008 where he was reminded of the firm’s regulatory responsibilities and warned of potential action..

A Chau Sprouting Co.’s sprouts were distributed to wholesale suppliers, and ended up on shelves in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Florida and Texas and other Gulf states, according to court documents. The company’s seed suppliers were often China-based, but it also sourced seeds from Caudill Seed Co. Inc., Louisville, Kentucky, and International Specialty Supply LLC, Cookeville, Tenn.

Since 1996, the FDA has responded to at least 32 outbreaks of foodbourne illness for fresh or lightly cooked sprouts, often with salmonella and E. coli as the causes. Sprouts were blamed in three ourbreaks in 2009.