Be aware of risks of growing, eating sprouts

chow_02916-453448601My teenage son has taken a keen interest in healthy eating, and as part of this, he has started growing his own sprouts. I remember there was an issue with raw sprouts a few years ago. Are they safe to grow and eat?  

It’s great that your son is interested in eating more healthfully, and if you do any home gardening, you know how inspiring it is to grow and enjoy your own food.

But raw sprouts do have some inherent issues related to food safety. In the last 20 years, there have been at least 30 outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with different types of raw and lightly cooked sprouts. A 2011 outbreak from fenugreek sprouts in Germany made thousands of people ill and was linked to 50 deaths.

Most sprout-related outbreaks are caused by Salmonella and toxin-producing E. coli, and often the bacteria is traced back to the seed.

And therein lies the problem: The warm, moist conditions seeds need to sprout into, well, sprouts, whether at home or in a commercial facility, are also exactly the type of conditions bacteria need to multiply rapidly. And since any bacteria on the seed is incorporated into the sprout, you can’t even partially remove it like when you rinse other types of produce under running water.

The opportunity for problems to arise is great enough that public health authorities urge anyone who is at greatest risk of foodborne illness, including children younger than 5, the elderly, pregnant women or anyone with a chronic health condition such as diabetes or cancer, to refrain from eating raw sprouts all together.

If your son is otherwise healthy, the sprouts he grows may not pose a serious health risk. But it might be wise to be on the lookout for signs of foodborne illness, which can strike anywhere from few hours up to eight days after ingesting the bacteria. Symptoms include cramps, diarrhea, fever and vomiting.

In addition, encourage your son to reduce the chance of illness as much as possible by following recommended practices. The University of California has a fact sheet, “Growing Seed Sprouts at Home,” online at anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8151.pdf. It includes detailed recommendations for buying, treating and growing sprout seeds to minimize risk. For example, the fact sheet spells out how to soak seeds in a hydrogen peroxide solution, followed by rinsing them and soaking them in clean water. At that point, you can remove any debris or other seed material that floats to the surface — an important step, as, the fact sheet says, most contamination has been tied to that material.

The authors also emphasize the need to carefully sanitize the containers used for sprouting the seed and provide thorough instructions for doing so. However, even with carefully following the steps outlined in the fact sheet, be aware that there is still no way to guarantee the safety of raw sprouts that are contaminated prior to germination.

For more information about food safety, see foodsafety.gov.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or filipic.3@osu.edu.

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, food safety specialist with Ohio State University Extension.

For a PDF of this column, please click here.

Be aware of risks from eating sprouts

158197055I really miss topping my salads off with a handful of alfalfa sprouts. What makes them so unsafe?

It doesn’t seem that long ago that sprouts were ubiquitous at every salad bar you approached. Not so much anymore. They’ve even disappeared from some major grocery store chains after numerous outbreaks traced to sprouts in recent years.

The problem is in the way sprouts grow: Seeds need warm, moist growing conditions to sprout — exactly the conditions that illness-causing bacteria, such as Salmonella and E. coli, need to thrive.

Even if there’s just a small amount of bacteria on or inside a seed, those cells can multiply to dangerous levels within hours in such conditions.

The irony is that raw sprouts have long been touted as one of nature’s most potent health foods. But as their popularity grew in the 1980s and 1990s, so did the reported number of illnesses associated with them.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, there were 34 outbreaks associated with sprouts between 1996 and 2010 — the most associated with any type of produce. In fact, sprouts were responsible for more than one-quarter of all produce-related outbreaks — more than those from melons, tomatoes or leafy greens.

The problem isn’t confined to the U.S. In 2011, nearly 4,000 people in Europe, primarily in Germany, became ill and 53 died from eating bean sprouts from a German organic farm contaminated with a rare strain of E. coli. Some of those people actually grew their own sprouts from seed — seed that originated from the implicated farm.

Although growers can take steps to reduce the risk from bacteria growing in sprouts, no method can absolutely be determined safe. Thorough cooking kills the dangerous bacteria, but few people cook raw sprouts.

The FDA says people most at risk from foodborne illness — children, the elderly, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system — should avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind, including alfalfa, clover, radish and mung bean sprouts.

If you decide to eat raw sprouts anyway, the FDA offers these tips to reduce your risk:

  • Buy only sprouts kept at refrigerator temperature. Select crisp-looking sprouts with the buds attached. Avoid musty-smelling, dark or slimy-looking sprouts.
  • Refrigerate sprouts at home. Refrigerators should be set to maintain a temperature of 40 degrees F or below.
  • Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw foods.
  • Rinse sprouts thoroughly with water before use. Rinsing can help remove surface dirt. Don’t use soap or other detergents.