The year is still young, but the decision by Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches to drop alfalfa sprouts from its menu in favor of clover sprouts has to be one of its more bizarre, head-scratching moments.

Jimmy John’s sprout switch remains puzzling

Mike Hornick
Staff Writer

The Champaign, Ill.-based chain gave a seemingly plausible reason for the switch. Founder Jimmy John Liautaud claimed smoother-surfaced clover seeds are easier to clean than alfalfa, minimizing the risk of foodborne illness such as the salmonella outbreak that sickened his customers in Illinois and nearby states.

That position might make some sense. But Jimmy John’s couldn’t have taken it at a worse time.

Clover recall

Just days before, two of the chain’s Oregon customers — who ate clover sprouts — were numbered among the nine victims of a salmonella sproutbreak in the Pacific Northwest by health officials there.

Kent, Wash.-based Sprouters Northwest had just done a voluntary recall of clover sprouts.

It raised the question of how Jimmy John’s came to its decision. As I write, no answer has yet been given by the company.

While Jimmy John’s was silent, one outspoken critic of sprouts — Oregon state epidemiologist William Keene — speculated on how the decision may have come about.

“I suspect someone is looking at a list of sproutbreaks and seeing the vast majority involve alfalfa, then mung bean and maybe a few clover,” Keene said.

“But they’re not looking at the rate per amount consumed. The problem is with sprouting, not with whether it comes from this kind of seed or that kind of seed. Nothing I’ve seen suggests that one of these products is OK, and alfalfa is terrible.”

Like melons, tomatoes and lettuce, sprouts have no kill step for pathogens.

“But at least we don’t take those foods and put them into an incubator before we feed them to people, which is what we do with sprouts,” Keene said.

“There are more sprout outbreaks than lettuce if you look at relative amounts.”

He predicts that if clover sprout consumption rises at Jimmy John’s, so over time will clover outbreaks.

“When you see a chain like Jimmy John’s do this, you’ve got to wonder what they’re thinking,” he said.

“Why would they want their brand tarnished?”

The ball remains in Jimmy John’s court. The problems of its suppliers are its own problems.

E-mail mhornick@thepacker.com

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