(UPDATED COVERAGE, 4:35 p.m.) A $10,000 donation from product liability law firm Marler Clark to the International Sprout Growers Association will help speed implementation of a food safety audit for sprouts, ISGA president Bob Sanderson said.

The sprout association sent the money to the National Center for Food Safety and Technology, a research consortium representing the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the Illinois Institute of Technology, and the food industry.

A task force for Summit Argo, Ill.-based National Center for Food Safety and Technology has been developing a sprout audit since August 2009. The process is nearing completion, Sanderson said.

“I would hope that within a month we’ll have at least a trial run of the audit with a couple of volunteer companies,” he said Feb. 1.

The most time-consuming issue in the audit’s development has been enforcement, Sanderson said.

“You can have a boatload of good intentions, but we’ve got to have a way where it really has some teeth,” he said. “Yet if it’s a regulation, it should be enforced by the industry. We’re trying to figure out how to address those things.”

Sprout industry concerns about the relevance and cost of other audits are driving the effort.

“Looking at an audit that might cost $10,000 and up, a company could score 100% on that and it wouldn’t touch some of the key issues for sprouts,” Sanderson said. “GMP audits are generic, but almost any commodity has its specifics. Exactly how this audit will be used hasn’t been worked out. It could be an additional audit or a piggyback. But what we’d really like is to be considered an equivalent to a GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) audit.”

The global initiative is designed around larger producers, Sanderson said and requires full-time quality assurance staff.

“But the farmers I know can’t run a QA department, so what are they going to do?” Sanderson said. “It’s not practical for many of us. But there has to be standards and they have to be monitored.”

The donation by Seattle-based Marler Clark will hasten the audit’s rollout, Sanderson said.

Marler Clark has sued sprout companies on behalf of more than 100 people sickened in sprout-based outbreaks. Since 1990 there have been at least 39 illness outbreaks involving sprouts, according to attorney Bill Marler.

That history spurred the donation, said Drew Falkenstein, an attorney at Marler Clark.

“Years ago, we certainly recognized sprouts were a problematic food with the way they’re cultivated,” Falkenstein said. “But in the last few years we’ve seen some massive outbreaks. One in 2009 sickened 272. With the way things went at the end of 2010, you reach a breaking point. We’re trying to create some advances with regard to cultivating and harvesting seeds.”

“Even though we recognize people have been victimized, we have a side of this firm that seeks to do right by the industry,” Falkenstein said. “We have an educational purpose. Bill Marler is good at litigating these cases, but he’s also got a big heart.”

The adversarial history hasn’t soured Sanderson.

“I have my questions, but they got people scared and that’s probably good,” he said. “Growers don’t want Marler Clark to come calling. Their job is to win settlements for their clients. But I want to believe it goes beyond that too.”

“I haven’t been on the wrong end of their intentions,” said Sanderson, who’s also president of Rochester, Mass.-based Jonathan’s Sprouts. “I wouldn’t want to be.”

Most recently, Marler Clark filed two lawsuits against Kent, Wash.-based Sprouters Northwest in a salmonella outbreak that sickened nine in Washington and Oregon.

The firm also filed one lawsuit in Illinois on behalf of a 16-year-old girl in a wider salmonella outbreak that sickened 112 in November and December. Health officials linked that outbreak to Tiny Greens alfalfa sprouts eaten at Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches outlets. Urbana, Ill.-based Tiny Greens Organic Farm issued a voluntary recall Dec. 29.

UPDATED: Law firm donates $10,000 for sprout safety