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Sproutrage 2012: Do Raw Sprouts Belong on the Menu?

The recent and prolific sprout outbreaks that have plagued Jimmy John’s customers have certainly caused a stir in the restaurant community. Should sprouts remain on the menu? Jimmy John’s, Jason’s Deli and Erbert & Gerbert’s Sandwich Shop apparently all pulled raw sprouts off the menu because of these recent outbreaks. Walmart made the decision in 2010 not to carry them. Should all food establishments follow their lead?

Sprouts and Illness

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Sprouts have a long history with foodborne illness. Racking up 55 outbreaks in 14 years, sickening 15,000 and killing dozens makes them quite formidable. However, there are also thousands of other restaurants serving raw sprouts every day that have never been implicated in an outbreak. As a food safety consultant, I like to err on the side of caution and reduce liability for my clients. Reducing liability definitely means not serving sprouts raw. 

How Do Sprouts Keep Getting Contaminated?

Contamination usually starts with the seeds. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the seeds can become contaminated in the field from agricultural water, improperly composted manure, contaminated soil or from roaming animals. As the contaminated seeds grow, the bacteria can grow to harmful levels by the time the sprouts are harvested. If bacteria are present in the seeds instead of on them, they can’t be cleaned off like other produce and fruit. This makes it difficult or even impossible for some contaminated sprouts to be served safe. Since 1999, the FDA has provided guidelines to the sprout-grower industry on safe ways to grow sprouts. Apparently, more work needs to be done.

The CDC doesn’t think certain people should even take the chance. They advise that children, older adults, pregnant women and people with weakened immune systems should avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind, including alfalfa, clover, radish and mung bean sprouts.

Can Sprouts Be Grown Free of Bacteria?

Ask the  Sproutpeople. They insist that sprouts are one of the safest foods on the planet. They may have a point since Certified Organic Growers only use manure free of harmful bacteria. This may prevent the seeds from becoming contaminated in the field. However, they may need to update their data since it’s missing 13 years of outbreak information, including the 2010 sprout outbreak linked to Tiny Greens, a sprout grower Certified by the Global Organic Alliance.

There is one final part of this argument that concerns me. Jimmy John’s has spent the last 4 years attempting to serve safe sprouts, and yet has been at the center of  five alleged outbreaks since 2008. Jason’s Deli, Erbert & Gerbert and Walmart didn’t even want to try any more. If these large corporations don’t seem to have the resources to ensure they could serve raw sprouts safely, then how are smaller chains and local food establishments going to do it?

If restaurants want to keep raw sprouts on the menu they should do the math. If the menu items containing raw sprouts are hot sellers, they may choose to keep them, but if only a few are sold, is it really worth the risk? 

 

As for why Jimmy John’s made the decision: “Jimmy decided he was tired of the negative press from it and he thinks sprouts aren’t necessary for Jimmy John’s to rock,” franchise owner Will Aubuchon told the Daily Express in Kirksville, MO. I’m sure it’s more than negative press that’s keeping sick Jimmy John’s customers from coming back.

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Dennis Keith is founder and CEO of the consulting company Respro Food Safety Professionals. 



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