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June 19, 2011

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The sinister side of sprouts

SPROUTS may not be as healthy as you thought. Now implicated in an outbreak that has killed more than 30 people and sickened over 3,100 in Europe, they are a frequent culprit in foodborne illness.

Though they add a nice crunch and are loaded with protein and vitamins, they can carry a real risk. The US government recommends that the very young, elderly, pregnant and others with compromised immune systems stay away from raw sprouts completely and that anyone who eats sprouts cook them first. Federal officials go so far as to recommend that people ask that raw sprouts not be added to their food at restaurants.

Alfalfa sprouts, bean sprouts and other varieties have sickened more than 400 people in the United States in the last two years and are blamed for dozens of significant outbreaks globally in the last two decades. Sprouts need warm and humid conditions to grow - precisely the same conditions required by bugs like E. coli and salmonella to thrive.

The problem, says Dr. Christopher Braden of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is that sprouts are often hidden. Because they are quietly tucked into salads, sandwiches and other foods, people often don't even know they've eaten them.

"Sprouts are kind of famous in our playbook because they can be what we call a 'stealth vehicle' for foodborne outbreaks - they are typically not served alone and people don't recall that they've eaten sprouts," he said.

There have been at least 30 outbreaks associated with raw or lightly cooked sprouts in the US in the last 15 years and even more around the world, including a 1996 outbreak in Japan that sickened more than 10,000 people with E. coli.

Bill Marler, a Seattle-based attorney and food safety advocate, has represented hundreds of people sickened by sprouts. He says people should think about them in the same category as they do unpasteurized milk, oysters or other potentially risky foods.

"People in the know in public health don't eat sprouts," Marler said.

German officials said earlier this month that sprouts caused the outbreak there, although they don't know which kind. The farm linked to the outbreak grew a wide variety, including alfalfa, onion and radish. For now, German authorities are recommending people avoid all sprouts.

Sprouts are grown in water from seeds, which are rinsed daily. Officials in Germany say they're not yet sure whether the sprout seeds were infected or whether the sprouts got contaminated by dirty water. Public health agencies have long been concerned about the risks of bacterial contamination of water used to produce sprouts. And E. coli can stick to the surface of sprout seeds.

"They can lay dormant on the seeds for months," said Stephen Smith, a microbiologist at Trinity College in Dublin.

Unfortunately for sprout-eaters, the germs are then inside the sprout as well as outside.

At that point, "washing has no effect," Smith said.

But experts say it's not necessary to ditch sprouts entirely. "It's not that all sprouts are bad," Smith said. "But if you're desperate to eat sprouts and you want to be safe, stir-fry them first."

Like most growers in the US, sprout producers are mostly self-regulated. The Food and Drug Administration has sent out several notices over the years asking the industry to follow certain guidelines to ensure safety, including making sure seeds are disinfected and testing water for bacteria. New produce safety rules coming out of the agency in the next year or so are expected to strengthen FDA oversight of all fruits and vegetables, including sprouts.

Michelle Smith, a sprout safety expert at the FDA, says one of the most important things sprout growers can do is to test water that is used to wash the sprouts as they are growing. If that water is contaminated, it is a good indication that the sprouts are, too, she says. That step is more foolproof than irradiating or using a bleach wash on the seeds, as some growers do.

Smith adds that people who want to grow their own sprouts may face the same risks that professionals do. There is a chance the seeds you buy are contaminated, and most people aren't going to have a chance to get their product tested.

Bob Sanderson, president of the US-based International Sprout Growers Association, said the industry is hoping the FDA will do even more to ensure sprout safety.

Sanderson's group, which represents 45 producers around the world, named June "Sprout Health and Wellness Month." "In a way, it is kind of international sprout month," he said. "Just maybe not in the way we hoped."


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