BONNERS FERRY — When agents from the Food and Drug Administration knocked on the door of Nadine Scharf’s 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 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 that 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 that no bacteria was found at Evergreen Produce, located in Moyie Springs in Boundary County.
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.
The sprout 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.
Eventually, 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 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 that 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, officials 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.
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 that no bacteria were found in any of the samples, the FDA maintained that 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 do not necessarily rule out Evergreen sprouts as the cause of the outbreak. Pathogens might 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.
RUIN TO RECOVERY
Months later, Scharf began healing the reputation of her business. She convinced her clients that 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 started 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. 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 it has contacted the FDA about official vindication.
“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.’ ”