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Food Safety News

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Publisher’s Platform: Time for Sprout Warning Label?

Opinion

Another sprout-related outbreak linked to Evergreen Fresh Sprouts – this time, according to CDC, a total of 17 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Shiga toxin-producing Escherichia coli O121 (STEC O121) have been reported from five states. The number of ill persons identified in each state is as follows:  Idaho (3), Michigan (1), Montana (2), Utah (1), and Washington (10).  Forty-seven percent of ill persons have been hospitalized.

Because contaminated sprouts may still be available on the market, CDC recommends that consumers do not eat any raw clover sprouts produced by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts. The Washington State Department of Health and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare are also advising people not to eat raw clover sprouts produced by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts.

Sound familiar?

Also, according to CDC, from April 12 to July 5, 2011, a total of 25 persons infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Enteritidis have been reported from five states. Results of the investigation indicate a link to eating alfalfa sprouts and spicy sprouts manufactured by Evergreen Fresh Sprouts. On July 1, 2011, Evergreen Fresh Sprouts LLC of Moyie Springs, Idaho, announced a recall of specific lots of alfalfa sprouts and spicy sprouts because these products have the potential to be contaminated with Salmonella.

This year, FDA conducted an inspection of the Evergreen Fresh Sprouts facility on May 22-23, 2014; May 27-30, 2014; and June 6, 2014. During the inspection, FDA investigators observed a number of unsanitary conditions, including condensate and irrigation water dripping from rusty valves; a rusty and corroded mung bean room watering system; tennis rackets that had “scratches, chips, and frayed plastic” used to scoop mung bean sprouts; a pitchfork with corroded metal being used to transfer mung bean sprouts; and a squeegee with visible corroded metal and non-treated wood being used to agitate mung bean sprouts inside a soak vat.

I guess lightning can strike twice?

And, it is not like these are isolated events – Barfblog does a great job of tracking sprout outbreak through 2012.  Outbreak Database carries on through 2014. That is a lot of sick and dead people linked to a “health food.”

Perhaps it is time for FDA to require warnings on packaging of all raw sprouts? Perhaps the labeling could mirror the requirements now found on unpasteurized juices?

WARNING: This product may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems.

Or, perhaps a bit further?

As far back as September 1998, FDA issued a warning against sprouts urging:

Children, pregnant women and the elderly should not eat alfalfa sprouts until growers find a way to reduce the risk of a potentially deadly bacteria that infects some sprouts, the Food and Drug Administration said this week. The FDA, which is investigating sprout industry practices, said children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems should avoid eating sprouts. The agency’s statement, issued Monday, repeated similar but little-noticed advice the U.S. Centers for Disease Control gave to doctors and researchers a year ago.

Here is the CDC warning :

Sprouts Not Healthy Food for Everyone

Children, the elderly, and persons whose immune systems are not functioning well should not eat raw sprouts, because current treatments of seeds and sprouts cannot get rid of all bacteria present.

Persons who are at high risk for complications from foodborne illness should probably not eat raw sprouts, according to an article in the current issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, CDC’s peer-reviewed journal, which tracks new and reemerging infectious diseases worldwide.

Although sprouts are often considered a “health food,” the warm, humid conditions needed for growing sprouts from seeds are also ideal for bacteria to flourish. Salmonella, E. coli, and other bacteria can grow to high levels without affecting the appearance of the sprouts.

Researchers have treated both seeds and sprouts with heat or washed them in solutions of chlorine, alcohol, and other chemicals. Some of these disinfectants reduced the levels of bacteria, but a potential hazard remained, especially for persons with weak immune systems. High temperatures that would kill the bacteria on the seeds would also keep them from sprouting. Until an effective way is found to prevent illness from sprouts, they should be eaten with caution, if at all.

I think it is time for a warning label — past time.

© Food Safety News
  • Keith Warriner

    Effective seed disinfection methods are available (stabilized sodium chlorite, acidified electrolyzed water) but the industry are reluctant to adopt them. In 1999 a seed disinfection method based on hypochlorite was suggested and became written in stone. Even back then we knew it was ineffective but the only information the sprout industry and regulators could refer to. Labels wont stop outbreaks but effective intervention technologies will.

  • Agree. Past time.

  • Mattie

    Maybe it’s about time all fruits and veggies have HACCP plans…..

  • Larry Goodridge

    So, should warning labels be placed on melons as well? Perhaps chicken and beef too? I know, let’s also put warning labels on eggs!

  • S

    YES a warning label is an absolute must