BONNERS FERRY, Idaho — When agents from the federal Food and Drug Administration knocked on the door of Nadine Scharf’s North Idaho sprout-growing business last summer, she had no problem letting them nose around the facility.
She didn’t mind the 400-plus samples they took on two different occasions. She didn’t protest when they asked her to explain her cleaning procedures.
“We’ve never had any problem before,” Scharf told them. “We do the same thing that we’ve done for 24 years.”
Scharf and her husband did, finally, put up a fight when the FDA demanded they issue a “voluntary” recall of their food products as a salmonella outbreak unfolded, sickening 25 people in five states. They acquiesced and have regretted the decision ever since.
“It went on the Internet that we had bacteria in our plant,” Scharf said. “They said: ‘Don’t eat their sprouts. If you have them in your fridge, get rid of them. Don’t even give them to your animals.”’
More than a month later, the test results showed no bacteria was found at Evergreen Produce, in Moyie Springs.
The FDA, however, didn’t relent on its conclusion that the business was the origin of the outbreak.
It’s a case that underscores a difficult regulatory balance: Move quickly on the best information available to extinguish a dangerous public health threat, or conduct a more meticulous investigation to protect a business from potential harm?
A year later, Scharf and her family are still trying piece back together the business they grew from the ground up.
The sprout-growing business started in the Scharf family almost 25 years ago as something for Fred and Nadine Scharf to do with their two home-schooled sons.
They kept vats in their house and sold the sprouts in small amounts to neighbors and local grocery stores.
As the children grew up, Nadine and her son, David, tried to drum up business.
Scharf said she can still remember the excitement from their first big order – 100 packages for Yoke’s Fresh Market in Sandpoint.
“We walked out the front door, and David and I said, ‘Wow!’ We were just so happy. One hundred packages!”
They needed more space. So the business moved into its current facility, a greenhouse-type building overlooking the Kootenai River.
Before long, Evergreen was producing alfalfa, clover, broccoli, radishes and bean sprouts. The business then expanded into warehouses so it could be distributed across the Pacific Northwest.
“We were doing so well,” Scharf said. “You would not believe how our business was growing.”
The family spent $18,000 on an addition to house more sprout-growing vats.
Every sprout was still hand-picked and packaged at the remote Moyie Springs warehouse.
Everyone who enters the business must wear an apron and boots and step in bleach. The sprout seeds are bleached before they are rinsed and set in the vat to grow.
“You name it, we sanitize it,” Scharf said.
One of the business’s biggest clients was Fairchild Air Force Base, which routinely sent military inspectors to the warehouse before the food could come on base.
That’s why the Scharfs were so surprised when, a month after their last military inspection, the FDA came knocking.
The inspectors took two rounds of samples — the second, Scharf said, after they told her they lost the first batch in the mail.
“When they came, I had no fear,” Scharf said. “I had no thought that they’d find any problem.”
The third time the FDA came, they showed up at Scharf’s home and said a recall was necessary.
A news release was issued, announcing a link between two kinds of Evergreen sprouts and the salmonella outbreak.
The events amounted to a shutdown of Evergreen Produce and halted plans to move into a new addition they had just built.
The Scharfs laid off a dozen employees. They kept two on the payroll.
They sold their home and moved into a trailer on the same property as the business.
“My heart just ached,” Scharf said. “It was just horrible. I think it was one of the worst, stressful experiences of my life.”
Scharf said she thought the test results would exonerate them.
While the results showed no bacteria were found in any of the samples, the FDA maintained there was still a link between the sprouts and the outbreak.
The FDA did not respond to numerous requests for an interview for this story.
Previously, however, an FDA representative said negative test results did not necessarily rule out Evergreen sprouts as the cause of the outbreak. Pathogens may have been contaminating only one portion of the food, the representative said.
What’s more, once the FDA ordered the voluntary recall, no more salmonella cases were reported.
Each year 48 million Americans are sickened by eating contaminated food, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die of food-borne disease.
Sprouts are of special concern to food safety specialists.
Seeds and beans are kept in warm, humid conditions to sprout and grow. Such conditions also are optimal for growth of bacteria such as salmonella, listeria and E. coli.
In the past 25 years there have been more than 30 outbreaks of food-borne illnesses linked to sprouts, according to federal statistics.
Scharf, however, maintains there is no way the outbreak came from her family’s business.
Months later, Scharf began healing the reputation of her business. She convinced her clients the business was clean. She personally contacted each buyer. She hid nothing, sending them the test results.
Last winter — after almost four months of no business — orders starting coming in again.
Scharf’s sons, who have families and careers of their own now, came back to help restart the business. David and his wife, Jolene, now run Evergreen Produce full time. Nadine and Fred retired two months ago.
Their grandkids are on the list of 12 people now employed. Business is about 75 percent of what it was before the recall.
The family said they have contacted the FDA to ask if they will ever be officially vindicated.
“I said, ‘You have ruined our business. . Are you going to help us get back online now?”’ Nadine Scharf said. “They said: ‘We have never done that and we never will.”’
Scharf said that even without the official removal of the scarlet letter, the family business is on a positive path. They have plans to move into the new addition by spring.
“We’re happy about what’s going on right now,” Scharf said. “To have bounced back as well as we have I think is a miracle.”