Jimmy John’s Chain Linked to Repeated Food-Borne Illness Outbreaks in 17 States

Federal regulators are warning that the sandwich fast food restaurant chain Jimmy John’s has been linked to repeated food poisoning outbreaks over the past several years and is accusing the company of habitually engaging “in a pattern of receiving and offering for sale adulterated fresh produce, specifically clover sprouts and cucumbers.” On February 21, in response to a series of E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks involving Jimmy John’s restaurants that have occurred over the past seven years and impacted at least 17 states, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter to the president of the Jimmy John’s franchise, calling for the company to implement corrective actions to prevent future outbreaks of human infections from E. coli and Salmonella.

Federal Health Regulators Investigate Food Poisoning Outbreaks

Together, the FDA, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local authorities have investigated Jimmy John’s restaurants in connection with several food poisoning outbreaks, including the most recent outbreak, which occurred in Iowa in December 2019 and sickened 22 people. The restaurant chain is accused of serving tainted ingredients that have been linked to food-borne illness outbreaks in at least 17 states since 2012. The pathogens associated with the food poisoning outbreaks at Jimmy John’s restaurants are Shiga toxin producing Escherichia coli (STECs) and Salmonella enterica.

E. Coli Outbreaks

According to the FDA, STECs can cause serious illness in humans, including diarrhea and bloody stool, and while most healthy individuals can recover from the illness within a week, some people can develop a type of kidney failure called hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS), which can lead to serious kidney damage and death.

Salmonella Outbreaks

Salmonella is a pathogenic bacterium that can cause serious or possibly even fatal infections in humans. Healthy individuals may only suffer short-term symptoms from a Salmonella infection, such as fever, chills, diarrhea, bloody diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal discomfort. These types of infections can be especially dangerous for children, the elderly and individuals with weakened immune systems.

Food-Borne Illness Outbreaks

The following is detailed information about the food poisoning outbreaks that have been associated with Jimmy John’s restaurants nationwide since 2012:

  • Outbreak of human infections with coli O103 (STEC) – 2019 (22 people from Iowa infected)
  • Outbreak of human infections with Salmonella Montevideo – 2018 (10 people from Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin infected)
  • Outbreak of human infections with E. coli O102 (STEC) – 2014 (19 people from Idaho, Montana, Michigan, Utah, California and Washington infected)
  • Outbreak of human infections with E. coli O157:H7 (STEC) – 2013 (eight people from Colorado infected)
  • Outbreak of human infections with E. coli O26 – 2012 (29 people from 11 states infected)

Jimmy John’s Accused of Violating Federal Food and Drug Act

In the food industry, the term “adulteration” refers to a food product that is impure, contaminated or otherwise unsafe for human consumption and is therefore unfit to enter into commerce for human food use. In its warning letter to Jimmy John’s, the FDA indicates that “The presence of these pathogens in your food, as evidenced by links to foodborne outbreaks, causes your products to be adulterated within the meaning of section 402(a)(1) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act)[21 U.S.C. § 342(a)(1)] in that they bear or contain an added poisonous or deleterious substance which may render them injurious to health.”

According to the Jimmy John’s website, there are approximately 2,800 Jimmy John’s restaurants in 43 states and the FDA has identified at least five outbreaks linked to adulterated food products received and sold by the restaurant chain. The FDA warning letter indicates that “Taken together, these outbreaks, which spanned over the past seven years and impacted no fewer than seventeen states demonstrate the corporate-wide supplier control mechanisms you have in place for receiving fresh produce are inadequate.” In the latest outbreak of human infections with E. coli, 20 of the 22 infected individuals were interviewed by the Iowa Department of Public Health. Of those 20, 100% reported eating at one or more Jimmy John’s restaurants and 45% reported eating sprouts in the week before their illness.