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Sprouts Remain An Unsolved Pathogen Problem

Outbreaks linked to sprouted seeds continue to crop up

PROVIDENCE — For all its efforts in the last 15 years or so, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t really moved the meter that much when it comes to improving the safety of raw and lightly cooked sprouts that Americans increasingly like to eat.

Sprouts were given special attention Wednesday at the International Association for Food Protection (IAFP) meeting this week in Rhode Island.

From 1990 until midway through 2011, there were at least 46 major outbreaks involving sprouts, said FDA’s Tong-Jen (T-J) Fu. The problem is that the conditions seeds need to grow sprouts are also ideal for growing pathogens.

Many of those outbreaks have occurred since 1999, the year FDA issued its non-binding “guidance” document to help sprout growers.  “Implementation has been an issue,” explains Fu.

Fixing the problem that good sprouting conditions are also good for growing pathogens isn’t easy.

“Whatever is good for growing the seeds is good for microbial growth,” says Mansour Samadpour, who runs a commercial food lab in Lake Forest Park, WA.

Fu says Salmonella growth is the most common contaminant for sprouts, but E. coli O157:H7 and Listeria are also known to taint sprouting seeds. In the sprouting process, seeds are often found to be the exact cause of outbreaks.

Fu also notes that people often take the seeds home for “home sprouting,” which she says could add to the risks.

On multiple occasions since 1999, FDA has also issued public warnings about sprouts, starting out with a notice warning about alfalfa sprouts. It was then amended to include a public health warning about all sprouts.

FDA’s Michelle Smith said the agency was originally concerned about raw sprouts, but has since changed that part of the warning to include “raw and lightly cooked” sprouts.

While acknowledging that the original guidance documents did not provide sprout growers with enough “how to” information, Smith presented data showing that most sprouters are not complying with FDA guidance.

FDA has used warning letters and Form 438 inspection reports to attempt to get growers to adopt safer practices, but often without success. Smith says produce rule called for in the Food Safety Modernization Act will specifically address the sprout issues.

Samadpour says it is possible to increase sprout safety, but it will requiring thinking that goes beyond how seeds are handled to other environmental factors and how employees are treated.

“You cannot expect employees to not come into work when they are sick if you do not provide sick leave,” he said.

One factor that is apparently working on behalf of sprout growers is the USDA-funded Microbiological Data Program (MDP), which has fresh produce tested in state labs.

Robert Sanderson, owner of Jonathan Sprouts in Marion, MA, credited a positive test result by MDP with helping his sprout business adjust its in-house food safety program.   Sanderson also heads the International Sprout Growers Association.

MDP, however, is at risk of being shut down in the near future if big fruit and vegetable interests in Washington, D.C. carry the day. For now, the program has been extended for a short period of time but still risks being terminated by budget cuts in the coming year.

© Food Safety News