(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 Administrationâs 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.
âI would hope that within a month weâll have at least a trial run of the audit with a couple of volunteer companies,â he said Feb. 1.
The most time-consuming issue in the auditâs development has been enforcement, Sanderson said.
âYou can have a boatload of good intentions, but weâve got to have a way where it really has some teeth,â he said. âYet if itâs a regulation, it should be enforced by the industry. Weâre trying to figure out how to address those things.â
Sprout industry concerns about the relevance and cost of other audits are driving the effort.
âLooking at an audit that might cost $10,000 and up, a company could score 100% on that and it wouldnât touch some of the key issues for sprouts,â Sanderson said. âGMP audits are generic, but almost any commodity has its specifics. Exactly how this audit will be used hasnât been worked out. It could be an additional audit or a piggyback. But what weâd really like is to be considered an equivalent to a GFSI (Global Food Safety Initiative) audit.â
The global initiative is designed around larger producers, Sanderson said and requires full-time quality assurance staff.
âBut the farmers I know canât run a QA department, so what are they going to do?â Sanderson said. âItâs not practical for many of us. But there has to be standards and they have to be monitored.â
The donation by Seattle-based Marler Clark will hasten the auditâs 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.
âYears ago, we certainly recognized sprouts were a problematic food with the way theyâre cultivated,â Falkenstein said. âBut in the last few years weâve seen some massive outbreaks. One in 2009 sickened 272. With the way things went at the end of 2010, you reach a breaking point. Weâre trying to create some advances with regard to cultivating and harvesting seeds.â
âEven though we recognize people have been victimized, we have a side of this firm that seeks to do right by the industry,â Falkenstein said. âWe have an educational purpose. Bill Marler is good at litigating these cases, but heâs also got a big heart.â
The adversarial history hasnât soured Sanderson.
âI have my questions, but they got people scared and thatâs probably good,â he said. âGrowers donât 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.â
âI havenât been on the wrong end of their intentions,â said Sanderson, whoâs also president of Rochester, Mass.-based Jonathanâs Sprouts. âI wouldnât want to be.â
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 Johnâs Gourmet Sandwiches outlets. Urbana, Ill.-based Tiny Greens Organic Farm issued a voluntary recall Dec. 29.