About Sprouts: Don't Eat Them, and Everything Else You Need to Know

The European E. coli outbreak has brought renewed attention to sprouts, and how iffy they can be in terms of safety.

June 10, 2011

Sprouts are specially vulnerable to bacterial contamination.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—Tiny bean sprouts, produced on an organic farm in Germany, have been pegged as the source of the massive European E. coli outbreak that has sickened nearly 3,000 people over the last few weeks. Though the evidence is still not definitive, a study of ill and healthy adults has found that the sick were nine times more likely to have eaten sprouts from the farm in the Lower Saxony region of Germany than healthy adults. It's not the first time sprouts have been linked to foodborne illness.


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THE DETAILS: The U.S. doesn't import many sprouts from Germany (in general, most sprouts sold here are grown locally and aren't exported), but we aren't immune to foodborne illness outbreaks tied to sprouts, which the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a nonprofit food-safety group, has included sprouts in its top 10 "riskiest" foods list. Last December, an organic farm in Illinois was the source of a salmonella outbreak that made 140 people in 26 states sick, and between 1990 and 2010, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has tied at least 45 outbreaks to them.

WHAT IT MEANS: It's easy to contaminate sprouts because of the way they're produced. In many cases, the seeds themselves are contaminated with bacteria, and because warm, moist conditions are required for the seeds to sprout, those bacteria proliferate quickly. It's not always known why the seeds are contaminated in the first place, says Doug Powell, PhD, professor of food safety at Kansas State University, "but my understanding is that when the plants are growing, you can get contamination on the plant, and as it grows, the seed gets encapsulated and traps the bacteria inside." And according to a fact sheet published today by CSPI, past outbreaks have been traced back to tainted irrigation water or poor sanitation at growing facilities.

The Food and Drug Administration has recommendations for sprout producers to follow, such as decontaminating the seeds before sprouting or conducting regular microbial testing. But even with the Food Safety Modernization Act, passed this January, the agency still doesn't have the power to require sprout producers to follow those recommendations. "And until they get more money and people on staff, they can't do anything anyway," Powell says, referring to the recently passed budget that essentially gutted funding for the bill.

Organic farmers, who grew the sprouts in Germany and in the most recent U.S. sprout outbreak, can be particularly susceptible to sprout contamination. "It's a high-risk product, whether grown conventionally or organically," says Powell. "But one of the prescribed seed treatments is soaking them in 20,000 parts per million chlorine, and some organic farmers aren't comfortable doing that."

Powell's general recommendation: Don’t eat sprouts. "I don't eat them," he says. "And I don't want them brought into my kitchen." Most food-safety agencies recommend cooking sprouts first if you really want them, but Powell says that bacteria can live not just in the seed itself, but also on the outside of the sprout. For that reason, it's easy to cross-contaminate other foods you're preparing.

If you must eat sprouts, plan to cook them, and keep them in a separate container until you're ready to throw them in a pan in order to avoid cross-contamination.

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