Canadians are being warned not to feed their children, the elderly, pregnant women, or those with weakened immune systems ANY raw or undercooked sprouts.

Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) say sprouts, such as alfalfa and mung beans, are a popular choice for Canadians as a low-calorie, healthy ingredient for many meals.

Onion, radish, mustard and broccoli sprouts, which are not to be confused with the actual plant or vegetable, are also common options.

These foods, however, may carry harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7, which can lead to serious illness, says Health Canada and CFIA.

Fresh produce can sometimes be contaminated with harmful bacteria while in the field or during storage or handling. This is particularly a concern with sprouts.

Many outbreaks of Salmonella and E. coli infections have been linked to contaminated sprouts. The largest recent outbreak in Canada was in the fall of 2005, when more than 648 cases of Salmonella were reported in Ontario.

Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to these bacteria and should not eat any raw sprouts at all. They should also avoid eating cooked sprouts unless they can be sure the sprouts have been thoroughly cooked.

Healthy adults who choose to eat sprouts should take precautions to reduce their risk of exposure to sprout-borne bacteria. When purchasing sprouts, always select crisp ones that have been refrigerated and avoid those that appear dark or smell musty. Always use tongs or a glove to place the sprouts in a plastic bag. If possible, when eating in a restaurant, always make sure that the sprouts are fully cooked.

Symptoms from Salmonella usually occur 12 to 36 hours after eating contaminated food while symptoms from E. coli O157:H7 typically occur within two to 10 days. Symptoms can include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fever and stomach cramps. People who experience these symptoms should contact a doctor immediately.  In extreme cases, E. coli O157:H7 can lead to acute kidney failure or even death.

Health Canada and the CFIA continue to work with producers to develop and implement best practices that will reduce the chances of sprouts becoming contaminated. Health Canada’s Policy on Managing Health Risks Associated with the Consumption of Sprouted Seeds and Beans was released with this in mind.