From produce aisle to checkout lane: All things grocery in Washington

Doubts about sprouts

June 28, 2011 - 11:50 AM
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When a food-borne illness on the scale of Germany’s is pinned to one vegetable, the lowly bean sprout, one assumes there’s going to be a bean-sprout backlash. Forty-seven people dead, 3,801 people sickened, and new cases cropping up in France and the U.S.—cue the hysteria and the onslaught of experts promising that sprouts are safe! Eat sprouts! Bathe in a pool of sprouts!

But when contacted for reassurance that those alfalfa squigglies on your salad are perfectly safe, experts delivered more bad news.

“I don’t eat sprouts,” says Douglas Powell, professor of food safety at Kansas State University. “It’s one of the few foods I will not eat. I will not eat raw sprouts.”

“Sprouts are more inherently risky than hamburger,” says Bill Marlar, food safety advocate and attorney.

The CDC adds: “Compared with other fresh produce, sprouts pose a special risk. … the elderly, children, and those with compromised immune systems, should not eat raw sprouts.”

Even the president of the International Sprout Growers Association, the very mouthpiece of sprouts, calls them problematic! “It’s a terrible concern to us all,” Bob Sanderson says of the outbreak in Germany. “I will readily admit that sprouts have their share of problems.”

How does a bean-sprout devotee keep this negative publicity, which has been mounting for 15 years, in perspective? How does one measure the anti-sprout fervor against the move against other products, like raw milk? As Powell points out, “There are a lot of foods that will make you sick.” Is it worth cutting sprouts out of your diet?

The numbers on sprouts aren't good. Since reports of sprout-related outbreaks started in the 1970s, there have been an avalanche of sprout incidents around the world. Northern Europe: 595 sickened in 1994. Japan: 6,000 in 1996. Canada: 648 in 2005. The U.S. has seen outbreaks, mostly linked to alfalfa sprouts, almost every year for the last 15 years, when the FDA started issuing warnings about their safety.

Why sprouts are more prone to contamination than other produce is no mystery. The germinated seeds, often eaten raw, are nutritious and popular among raw-food dieters. They’re also the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. Grown in warm, moist conditions, sprouts allow pathogens to multiply, multiply, multiply. In a recent test of pre-packaged sprouts, more than 78 percent of the sprout samples had “levels of microorganisms too numerous to count.” E. coli was found on one sample.

How these pathogens get on sprouts in the first place is of course another problem altogether—sprouts are often contaminated at the seed level, and bad farming practices play a role. A Salmonella outbreak among Jimmy John’s sandwich customers was linked to sprouts from Tiny Greens Organic Farm in Urbana, Ill., where workers had tracked compost runoff into the sprout production area. The FDA found a number of other gross employee practices and questionable processes.

When you buy sprouts and eat them raw, Powell says, you’re eating whatever those sprouts came into contact with. “It’s basically faith-based food safety,” he says. Some chemical treatments can help reduce bacteria. Washing does very little.

Powell says if you’re going to buy sprouts, ask questions. Buying from a farmers market offers zero guarantee of safety. “It’s not a question of larger farm, but good farmers and bad farmers,” he says. “How often do you test your irrigation water? What’s your employee hand-washing program?” He has little patience with the touchy-feely sweetness of buying directly from the farmer. “If they can’t answer, if they tell you it’s locally grown and grown lovingly, don’t buy it,” he advises.

Growing your own sprouts at home doesn’t eliminate risk either, as contamination often happens at the seed level. (This appears to be what happened in Germany.) “What the United States found out over the last 15 years,” Powell says, “is that these seeds just move around. No one has any real control over them.” The first major sprout outbreak in the U.S. was linked to an at-home sprout kit.

As more and more sprout outbreaks have hit the U.S., the sprout industry has taken its lumps and tried to keep up with new regulation. Sanderson, who owns a sprout-production company in addition to leading the International Sprout Growers Association, says sales were huge into the 1990s, “and then we ran into the wall.” Many sprout companies consolidated. Membership in the association dropped from 100 to 45. Increased regulation in the wake of outbreaks has been difficult for smaller growers to adjust to.

“It’s good that there are higher and higher standards, for sure,” says Sanderson. “But it does make a different kind of business. You just have to worry about so many details. The new audits have, like, 1,500 items on them. We didn’t even have audits for the first 20 years.” He laments the end of the “easy-going spirit” of sprout-growing but makes no attempt to say that sprouts should not be regulated or that the threat is exaggerated. “We’ve got to broaden our testing,” he says. “If [illness] can be transmitted by sproutsand we’re not testing for them, that’s not good.”

None of this would make sprout-lovers feel good about eating sprouts, but at the moment there’s nothing keeping them from doing just that. “People can do what they want,” says Powell. “Drink raw milk. Eat raw sprouts. Go ahead. But as a food safety professor, I wouldn’t do either.”

Consumers might soon lose their choice about whether or not to buy sprouts—not because of government intervention, but business decisions. Powell says some major food suppliers have stopped selling already because of the risk of litigation. “Retailers can decide to sell what products they want," he says, "and if they sell products that make people sick, they will get sued.”

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