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Food safety educator’s take on sprouts — cook them to kill risk

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Michigan State university Extension logoEditor’s note: The Food and Drug Administration published draft guidance for sprout growers in recent days and is accepting public comments. In the meantime, Jane Hart of the Michigan State Universty Extension program offers practical advice for consumers in this column originally published on the Extension website.

Have you noticed ever so often, you hear about foodborne illness in association with sprouts? I often see articles in the news about people getting sick after eating sprouts in salads or on sandwiches. Then, I remember why sprouts are not available on many salad bars.

Any produce that is eaten raw or only lightly cooked carries with it a risk of foodborne illness. Sprouts especially seem to be vulnerable because they need warmth and humidity to sprout, which is exactly what bacteria like salmonella and E. coli need to grow. With enough time in the temperature “danger zone” — 40 degrees to 140 degrees Fahrenheit — that the seeds need to sprout, they can become a petri dish of bacteria.

There have been several instances of sprouts causing outbreaks of food poisoning throughout the United States between 1996 and 2016, the last one being August 2016. It doesn’t discriminate between differing seed sprouts either — all types have been compromised.

There are many types of bean and seed sprouts, including alfalfa, mung beans, clover and others. The companies selling sprouts cannot guarantee that all harmful bacteria will be eliminated, even on seeds that have been safely treated for bacteria. Canned sprouts, like those in Asian dishes, are safe as they have been heated during processing.

To reduce the risk of illness from sprouts

  • cooking sprouts frying panCook sprouts thoroughly. Cooking kills the bacteria so you can enjoy them in cooked dishes.
  • People with weakened immune systems — the elderly, children and those with compromised immune systems — should avoid eating all types of raw sprouts.
  • If you are at a restaurant, ask that raw sprouts not be added to your salad or sandwich. If they are added, return it.

There are articles in magazines and online explaining how to sprout seeds and beans at home. Be aware that the seeds you purchase to do this may be compromised with bacteria, and will bring about an unsafe product no matter how careful you are.

I used to sprout seeds for salads and ceased after the illness outbreaks. It’s not worth it for me to spend time and money on a problematic food source. Now I purchase them in cans and only use them in cooked dishes.

The more we know about food safety, the healthier we can be.

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