Are Sprouts Making Us Sick?


A recent presentation by US Food and Drug Administration representatives explained why contaminated sprouts continue to be the cause of many food-borne illnesses.

At the recent ID Week 2016 meeting in New Orleans, Louisiana, representatives from the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) delivered a presentation on how sprouts continue to be a serious health concern. In the past two decades, over 2,500 people have become sick due to sprout contamination, with 186 cases resulting in hospitalization and three cases resulting in death, according to a recent press release.

Although the study has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, LiveScience reporter Sara G. Miller covered the ID week presentation in a recent article. The researchers reported that from 1996 to August 2016, there were 48 sprout-related outbreaks, with alfalfa sprouts in particular, accounting for 30 outbreaks alone.

In addition, seven outbreaks were linked to clover sprouts, six outbreaks to mung bean sprouts, two outbreaks were due to “unspecified sprouts,” two outbreaks were linked to a number of sprout types, and one outbreak had been due to sprouted chia powder.

The reason behind the contamination has been traced back to the way that the sprouts are grown. The seeds are grown in water in a warm, humid environment, which is exactly the kind of environment that allows for bacteria to grow. As the seed sprouts, the bacteria are able to multiply in number, Kathleen Gensheimer, MD, MPH, the director of the FDA’s Coordinated Outbreak Response and Evaluation Network and lead author of the study explained to LiveScience. After the seeds are harvested, the bacteria on the seeds can continue to survive for months.

In the study, the researchers found that the seeds contained a number of different bacteria. In 35 outbreaks, Salmonella was found, with Escherichia coli accounting for 11 outbreaks, and Listeria accounting for two. Salmonella (2) and Listeria (1) were the cause of three deaths related to contaminated sprouts.

Dr. Gensheimer explained that the best way to reduce risk of sprout contamination is through cooking the sprouts rather than eating them raw. However, sprouts are generally eaten raw, especially alfalfa sprouts. The fact that sprouts are not usually cooked, is what has allowed for so many sprout-related outbreaks. In addition, Dr. Gensheimer described sprouts as a “stealth ingredient,” due to the fact that oftentimes, sprouts are added to different meals in food establishments without any indication.

According to the FDA, sprouts are usually served on salads, sandwiches, or wraps, and if they are raw, they may contain harmful bacteria that can potentially develop into serious food-borne illnesses. If retailers feel that they may have served food products that had been contaminated, they should be very aware of the potential of cross contamination. Therefore, they should thoroughly clean all utensils, cooking cutlery, and surfaces that may have come into contact with the contaminated sprouts. In addition, they should wash their hands thoroughly with soap and water after decontaminating their work area.

If food consumers feel that they may have had contaminated sprouts in their refrigerators, they should thoroughly clean the shelves as well as any of the kitchen surfaces that may have come into contact with the contaminated food.

Those who are at particular risk for acquiring any kind of infectious disease are elderly adults, children, women who are pregnant, and anyone with a weakened immune system; these individals should avoid consuming raw sprouts of any kind.

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