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FDA Sends Warning Letter to Jimmy John's Over Multiple Food-Borne Outbreaks

FEB 26, 2020 | GRANT M. GALLAGHER
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has sent Jimmy John’s sandwich chain a warning letter over the company’s involvement in several outbreaks of Salmonella and Escherichia coli over the past 7 years.

The warning letter pointed out that the chain has developed a pattern of being implicated in such food-borne outbreaks, raising questions about the quality of vegetables being served to consumers. There have been at least 5 outbreaks associated with contaminated vegetables served at Jimmy John’s over the past decade.

The letter was addressed directly to the Jimmy John’s franchise president James North.

“The evidence demonstrates that your corporation, through your franchised Jimmy John’s restaurants, engaged in a pattern of receiving and offering for sale adulterated fresh produce, specifically clover sprouts and cucumbers,” FDA program division director William R. Weissinger, MS, wrote.

As evidence, the letter cites 5 outbreaks, including a December 2019 E coli outbreak in the state of Iowa.

The outbreak in Iowa impacted 22 individuals. All 22 individuals were contacted by the Iowa Department of Public Health and 100% reported eating at 1 or more of 15 different Jimmy John’s locations.  

In February 2018, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on an outbreak of Salmonella Montevideo in 3 states which affected 10 people. Of the 10 people, 8 reported eating meals with raw sprouts at Jimmy John’s restaurants prior to becoming ill. 

The CDC also reported an outbreak of E coli 0102 in August 2014, in 6 states infecting 19 people. The outbreak investigation identified 7 points-of-service as likely locations for contaminated sprout exposure, 5 of which were Jimmy John’s restaurants. It was then confirmed that sprouts at each of these locations were from the same grower.

The fourth outbreak cited by the FDA took place in October 2013, when 8 people from Colorado were infected with E coli O157H7. All 8 people interviewed by the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment reported eating a sandwich with raw cucumbers at 1 of 3 Jimmy John’s restaurants in Denver. A common grower of the contaminated vegetable was identified among the 3 stores.

The last outbreak FDA officials cite took place in April 2012, when 29 people across 11 states were infected with E coli O26. Of 27 people interviewed, 23 reported eating sprouts at 1 of 6 Jimmy John’s restaurants.

“Taken together, these outbreaks, which spanned over the past 7 years and impacted no fewer than 17 states demonstrate the corporate-wide supplier control mechanisms you have in place for receiving fresh produce are inadequate,” Weissinger explained.

The FDA’s letter did acknowledge the measures taken to attempt to control the situation but did not find them sufficient.

“We acknowledge your parent company’s, Inspire Brands, decision in December 2019 to destroy sprouts on hand in all of your Iowa Jimmy John’s restaurants, and to implement an additional, 1-time cleaning and sanitation at Iowa based Jimmy John’s restaurants,” Weissinger wrote.

“However, neither you nor your parent company proposed any corrective actions to prevent these, or other Jimmy John’s restaurants, from receiving adulterated produce, specifically sprouts.”

In a 2012 meeting with FDA held at the corporation’s request, Jimmy John’s expressed that they would only source sprouts from certain suppliers. Traceback investigations conducted in relation to 3 outbreaks Jimmy John’s has been implicated in since the 2012 meeting demonstrate that multiple other sources of sprouts are being used by Jimmy John’s restaurants.

“Although you stated that corrective actions were implemented following the 2019 and 2012 outbreaks, you have not provided FDA with any information demonstrating long-term, sustainable corrections have been implemented throughout your organization to prevent this violation from recurring in the future,” Weissinger wrote.

Jimmy John’s was instructed to respond in writing within 15 days of receiving the letter, and to include in the response specific measures being taken to address the problem.

Several outbreaks of E coli and Salmonella alarmed the public in 2019, raising concerns about food safety practices in the United States. Contagion® compiled the top infectious disease outbreaks that made headlines in 2019, accessible here.
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