Sprouts farm owner cites steps he's taken
URBANA — The owner of a sprouts farm linked to a salmonella outbreak said he has taken several corrective actions to address food safety concerns raised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
"After the changes we made, it's next to impossible for anything to happen," said Bill Bagby Jr., owner of Tiny Greens in Urbana.
Tiny Greens recalled alfalfa sprouts and spicy sprouts, a mix of alfalfa, radish and clover sprouts, in late December. Between November 2010 and February 2011, 140 people from 26 states fell ill with a particular strain of salmonella. The FDA linked the outbreak to eating alfalfa sprouts from Tiny Greens Farm of Urbana or Jimmy John's restaurants.
According to the FDA, a sample of compost runoff from outside the Urbana farm turned up a salmonella strain "indistinguishable" from the one responsible for the outbreak.
The weeks and months following the recall, which entailed several visits by agency inspectors, "was a very difficult time," Bagby said. "I would not wish this on my worst enemies."
The FDA took hundreds of samples of water and seeds and environmental samples from surfaces in and out of the building where the company grows sprouts and microgreens. Each time the FDA collected samples, Bagby did as well, but his tests all turned up negative, he said.
"It's possible we had a problem. ... If we did have a problem it all happened after the kill step and testing," he said referring to the facility's practice of immersing the seeds in a chlorine bath before growing them, and several different tests for bacteria like salmonella and E. coli. It is standard to test for bacteria before the product is shipped out, he said.
Last month, the FDA sent the business a warning letter and outlined several food safety recommendations. In response, Bagby sent a letter to the FDA and shared details of those corrective actions with The News-Gazette on Monday.
"We took short-term and long-term corrective actions," Bagby said.
After agency inspectors noted that Tiny Greens employees, who were wearing boots, pushed carts through compost water runoff outside the facility and did not sanitize boots or carts before returning through a greenhouse door to the production area, Bagby said now the outside carts and boots never come inside the production facility, and inside boots and carts never go outside the facility. The greenhouse door also is now for exiting the building only.
They built splash guards for the growing racks, which prevent anything on the floor from splashing back up onto the growing sprouts. Splash guards were also installed on the wheels of carts used to move items around the facility. A leaky valve was fixed on the end of a hose and two new sinks were installed in the production areas, ensuring that those two are exclusively for hand washing instead of the sink in the break room. They also stopped using compost in growing any micro greens.
In addition, Bagby said he's increased the frequency of sanitation training for employees.
Bagby consulted with an epidemiologist to help him throughout the process, and a new food safety manager is now on staff.
In the wake of the recall and FDA investigation, several lawsuits have been filed against Tiny Greens, and Bagby said his insurance company has been fighting those cases.
"It was very expensive and very difficult," he said, but after a couple of months business returned to normal.
"It's a product under great demand," he said.