Raw sprouts have been involved in a number of cases of foodborne illness. To reduce the risk of illness, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has advised consumers to be aware of the risks associated with eating raw sprouts. But what makes sprouts so potentially hazardous?

Bean Sprouts/CDC
Bean Sprouts/CDC

Sprouts are germinated seeds or beans that are typically consumed raw. The most popular is alfalfa, but other loved sprouts include clover, sunflower, broccoli, mustard, radish, mung, navy, soy, and wheat berries. We love this “super food” because it’s low in calories, fat, sodium but high in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and other health-promoting phytochemicals. Plus, they’re delicious.

Who loves sprouts even more than we do? Cows! Moooove over humans; the overwhelming majority of alfalfa and clover are produced for animal foraging consumption. As the seeds for animal feed are harvested and stored in warehouses, seeds for humans are processed right along with them, eventually being sold to Sprouters. Sprouters soak the seeds in water, drain, spread onto trays. Within 3-10 days, with continual irrigation, the seeds are ready for harvest. With one final rinse to remove their outer shell, they are packed into bags or trays and shipped to market. Wait for it…..

Consider this rap sheet:

  • 1989:  A Salmonella outbreak sickened 19 people in Wisconsin linked to contaminated alfalfa sprouts.
  • 1998: 30 people in California were infected with Salmonella linked to clover sprouts
  • 1998: 70 cases of salmonellosis in Colorado were associated with clover sprouts
  • 1998:  Eight people in California and Nevada were infected with E. coli linked to alfalfa/clover sprouts.
  • 1999:  Eighteen cases of salmonellosis were associated with alfalfa sprouts in California.
  • 1997/98:  60 cases of salmonellosis in California were associated with an alfalfa/clover sprout mixture.
  • 2011:  E.coli outbreak sickened 852 people and killed 32 after consuming contaminated spouts from a German farm

With that kind of history, not only do we know which state loves their sprouts the most, but we begin to understand the USDA’s advisory. Healthy people infected with Salmonella and E. coli may experience diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramping, and fever for several days. However, children, elderly, and those with weakened immune systems can suffer more severe symptoms, kidney failure or even death.

How does contamination happen and why sprouts? All sprouts are susceptible to microbial contamination, however, clover and alfalfa are the most common. Seeds are so tiny it is hard to detect any pathogens present. The commingling of seeds for both human and non-human consumption during processing makes seeds especially susceptible to microbial contamination from animal manure in the field or cross-contamination during post harvest storage.

As if that wasn’t qualifying enough, consider the germination process. Abundantly nutritious seeds are sprouted with high levels of moisture and even generate heat from the sprouting process. Pathogens thrive in the moist warm conditions, quickly multiplying and reproducing to harmful levels. Now, throw a few possible traces of fecal matter from the poopy fingers of an employee handling or packing and voila! We have ourselves a bonafide outbreak.

What’s a sprout lover to do? We are still alive to sprout another day so obviously, not all sprouts are contaminated. Most are fine. Enjoy with caution. The USDA’s warning for raw sprouts helps us minimize our risk and make educated choices. Will this deter me from eating sprouts in the future? Probably not. However, I may think twice about giving raw sprouts to preschool age children or a family member undergoing chemotherapy. For those high risk folks, consider serving only cooked sprouts, like mung bean in a stir fry, and avoid raw sprouts.

Everyone must be accountable for food safety. Farmers should implement GAPs (Good Agricultural Practices) as provided by the FDA, Sprouters need to be diligent, using only approved reputable suppliers, and follow the FDA’s guidelines on pretreating, handling, testing, and sanitation. As consumers, the FDA suggests good old common sense when consuming sprouts: purchase quality product, pay attention to shelf dates, avoid slimy or discolored sprouts, etc. So, go forth and sprout safety.

April Rivas has a 19 years of experience in the food and beverage industry including manufacturing and distribution. In 2009, April founded A Training Company, a food safety consulting firm. ATC trains and certifies industry professionals in the Food Protection Manager Certification with ServSafe® and NRFSP, HACCP training, and Responsible Alcohol Service. ATC provides general restaurant as well as FDA regulatory compliance consulting. Visit www.atrainingcompany.com to view upcoming public classes, webinar training, or schedule a private class.