With the confusing back-and-forth claims and retractions about bean sprouts being the possible culprit in the tragic E. coli outbreak in Germany, it’s not surprising that some people are wondering if they should be eating sprouts at all.

For sprout growers, the ironic timing of having sprouts land in the center of the food-safety spotlight is all too clear: It happened just after the International Sprout Growers Association named June as International Sprout Health & Wellness Month.

The launch of the campaign was upbeat. The association’s June 1 press release — the first one the ISGA has ever put out — says that during  June, “consumers around the world will be able to taste and learn all about these amazing vegetables that some have called ‘Superfood’ and that have been harvested as a low-calorie, high-benefit food source for over 3,000 years.”


Steve Meyerowitz, a director of the association, said the goal of the campaign “is to make consumers aware of the many health benefits, taste and variety offered by the inclusion of both raw and cooked sprouts in our daily diets.” He describes sprouts as “highly bio-active baby vegetables, rich in sources of enzymes and living nutrients that are easily digestible.”

The association also praises “the broad range of health benefits that come from eating sprouts,” among them providing help with fighting diabetes and obesity, coronary and artery disease, and ‘the great promise’ they hold to help slow and reverse many forms of cancer.”

Another goal of the campaign, according to the association’s website, is “to put the food safety issue in perspective for the public, since no food is immune to contamination.”

Yet this information comes set against a backdrop of warnings about sprouts, one of them by Hamburg’s Minister of Health Cornelia Prufer-Storcks, who advised against eating sprouts, tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce or salad mixes until the source of the E. coli outbreak is identified. 

In a  recent reminder to consumers, Dr. Bill Keene, senior epidemiologist at the Oregon Public Health Division, told Food Safety News that the FDA considers raw sprouts a  “high risk” food for foodborne illnesses, such as E. coli and Salmonella, both which can sicken people and even cause death.

Keene and his colleagues are currently wrestling with the 12th sprout-caused outbreak to sicken Oregonians since 1995.

Along with Keene’s comments come precautionary comments from Dr. John Kobayashi, a veteran epidemiologist in Seattle who now teaches at the University of Washington. In an interview with Food Safety News, he said that sprouts “pose an inherent problem” for foodborne illness.

Kobayashi explained that if the seed that’s grown to be sprouted becomes contaminated — from cow manure from a neighboring field, for example — the sprouts can become carriers of pathogenic bacteria.

Even worse, he said, they become “an incubator,” since sprouts and bacteria such as E. coli and Salmonella thrive in the same combination of warmth and moisture that the seeds are sprouted and grown in. When that happens, he said, both the sprouts and the bacteria can end up in someone’s salad.

Sprouts are produced by soaking the seeds in water and then putting them in a warm, moist environment for 3 to 7 days to encourage them to germinate and grow.

According to the the Marler Clark outbreak database, in the past 20 years contaminated bean sprouts, alfalfa sprouts or other varieties have been blamed for at least 40 significant outbreaks of foodborne illness across the United States, Canada and Europe.

Sprouts are popular

Yet despite recalls and scientists’ warnings about sprouts, people continue to eat them. In fact, spurred on by heightened interest in good nutrition, demand has been going up, following an earlier downtick triggered by sprout recalls beginning in the late1990s, said Barbara Sanderson, spokeswoman for the International Sprout Growers Association and one of three owners of Jonathan’s Sprouts in Massachusetts (www.jonathansorganic.com).

“Although outbreaks caused by sprouts do get people sick, the chances you’ll get sick from eating sprouts is pretty slim,” she told Food Safety News.

When people ask her if they should eat sprouts, she tells them they shouldn’t “if they can’t afford to get sick,” which can be the case in the very young or elderly or those with diseases such as AIDS that make their immune systems less able to deal with pathogens such as E. coli and Salmonella.

“In that case, you shouldn’t be eating any raw produce at all,” she tells them.

Otherwise, she said, you should be eating raw vegetables, which includes sprouts, and fruits because they’re really good for you.

“All the statistics say we’ll be healthier if we eat vegetables and fruits,” she said.

She pointed out that while the FDA says sprouts are a “high-risk” food, the agency also puts raw leafy greens, tomatoes, and even berries in its list of top foods that can get you sick from foodborne pathogens.

In the same document, the agency also adds this information about its “high-risk” list: “Ironically, the foods that are high risk for contamination are some of the healthiest foods that are being consumed by the U.S. population.”

On the plus side for sprouts and berries, Sanderson said she finds it “amazing” that berries and sprouts have so much in common.

“They’re so close to the seed,” she said. “The mother plants give their all to the seeds. They’re little power-packed packages. We really should be eating these little berries and sprouts.”

Food safety for sprouts

For sprout producers, it all begins with the the seeds, which is why the FDA urges them to obtain their seeds from suppliers with a good programs set up to screen their seeds for potential contamination with foodborne pathogens.

In a 2009 letter to seed suppliers, distributors, and sprouters, FDA said that seeds are considered the most likely source of contamination in most sprout-associated outbreaks.

The letter was prompted by what FDA described as its “serious concern with the continuing outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with eating raw and lightly cooked sprouts.”

“Sprout growers want to know that their seed suppliers are using good agricultural practices,” Sanderson said, referring to practices on the farm that prevent foodborne pathogens from contaminating their seeds. These practices would include making sure the seeds don’t come into contact with manure, which can contain harmful strains of E. coli or Salmonella bacteria.

But even with those precautions, sprout growers know that bacteria can lodge in the cracks of the seeds, which means that screening the seeds isn’t always 100 percent foolproof.

For that reason, they put the seeds into a strong bleach solution to kill any bacteria that might be on them.

Another important food-safety step, one that the FDA strongly encourages, is testing the spent irrigation water (the water that has flowed over the seeds) 48 hours after the seeds have begun to sprout. That ap
proach is based on the fac
t that if there were even just the smallest amount of E. coli or Salmonella on the seeds, those bacteria would have increased in numbers during the sprouting process simply because the seeds are sprouted in a warm, moist climate — just perfect for a bacteria’s social life and subsequent reproduction.

If the spent irrigation water shows signs of foodborne pathogens, the sprout producer throws that batch away.

Sanderson said testing is a very good food-safety measure because it lets sprout growers know ahead of time — before they distribute their sprouts — that there are foodborne pathogens in a batch of sprouts.

“It has eliminated the majority of problems and reduced the number of outbreaks because we can throw away contaminated batches,” she said.

Testing doesn’t come cheap. In fact, Sanderson describes it as “extremely expensive.” Using a mid-sized sprouting operation that does 5 batches each day, 5 days a week as an example, Sanderson said that the $30 price tag for each of the 50 individual tests for E. coli and Salmonella gets pricey in a hurry.

FDA describes foodborne pathogens on food as “adulterants” and therefore illegal. The sprout industry is audited according to food safety standards, not farming standards.

“Sprouting is basically manufacturing, which is why FDA did that about 20 years ago,” Sanderson said.

Even so, there are currently no regulations on how sprouts are to be grown or testing is to be done.

But in a June 6 press release, the FDA said that the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law in January, gives the FDA new authority pertaining to the prevention of foodborne illness.

As such, the agency is currently developing rules that will require food-processing facilities (sprouting operations are considered a form of food processing) to develop plans that will put controls in place to reduce the risk that food will be contaminated.

Sanderson also pointed to other food-safety practices sprouters follow. Seeds have to be stored where rodents or birds can’t get to them. Workers have to sanitize their hands before putting on gloves, and the gloves need to be sanitized as well. Workers must also wear sanitized gowns over their clothing. In addition, the equipment in a sprout processing facility is sanitized daily. And the final product — the sprouts, themselves — need to be kept cool while being transported, delivered and stored.

 “All of this has to be done,” Sanderson said. But she also conceded that just as in other endeavors, human error can factor into the equation.

When people ask her if they can sprout their seeds at home, Sanderson tells them to go ahead — that they most likely won’t get sick, unless they or the people they’ll be serving the sprouts to are very young, elderly or have health problems that could make them more vulnerable to food poisoning.

Even so, she said that the advantage in buying sprouts from a reputable company is that they can test for pathogens and throw away contaminated batches. Most people don’t have any way to test the seeds they sprout.

More food safety ahead

Sanderson said that the sprouting industry is always eager to learn new ways to make sprouts safer. A recent $10,000 pledge to the association from food-safety law firm Marler Clark (sponsor of Food Safety News), along with other funding, will be used to ensure that testing methods are as effective as possible and to find other effective methods as well. In addition, the association wants to research other possible methods of sanitizing the seeds.

In a blog about the pledge, Marler Clark managing partner Bill Marler said the ultimate goal of the pledge to ISGA is to help it develop a more effective sanitation measure in the production of sprouts.

“We recognize that sprout seeds are often the problem, but the seed industry has proven itself incapable of ensuring the safety of its products,” said Marler. “Therefore the question of safety must fall to the sprout growers, themselves, and this pledge is to help them in some small way achieve better safety.”

ISGA is also working with the National Center for Food Safety and Technology. As part of that, a subcomittee of the Sprout Safety Task Force is developing a sprout safety audit that restaurants and stores can use to screen their suppliers.

“I suspect they’ll use our audit for a ruling on sprouts in the future,” Sanderson said, referring to the FDA.

Who are the sprouters?

In a presentation before the FDA, Bob Sanderson, an industry representative, said that those growing sprouts make up a very diverse group, with mung bean sprout growers making up the largest number of sprouters.

But since mung bean sprouts are often cooked, they don’t account for the majority of sprout outbreaks.

Sanderson said the other main group of sprouters is made up of companies that beginning about 40 years ago, began to introduce a variety of sprouts — alfalfa, clover, radish, broccoli, pea shoots and wheat grass, for example — which historically had not been widely used as human food.

He also said that more and more sprout producers are growing a combination of the more traditional sprouts and the more recently developed varieties. As a result, the industry is a mix of people from very different cultures.

He also pointed out that the concern with sprout safety seems to have coincided with the appearance on the market of the newer types of sprouts.

The wide diversity of sprout operations and people sprouting seeds makes it difficult to compile numbers about how many sprouts are produced each year.

But Barbara Sanderson said that a large nearby sprout operation probably produces about 70 tons a week.

“But some bean sprout producers in Asia produce 60 tons a day,” she said. “That overshadows our (U.S.) production.”

Meanwhile, the FDA has increased surveillance of imported produce to include all fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce (including salad mixes and prepared salads), and all sprouts and sprout seeds from Germany and Spain.

According to information from the FDA, the United States has received no shipments of sprouts or sprout seeds from Germany and Spain since at least last October.

Consumers and sprouts

As for the ways consumers can know if the sprouts they’re buying are safe, Sanderson said there is no seal they can look for. The association used to have one but didn’t have funds or political clout to monitor if people using the seal were actually abiding by the association’s guidelines.

Even so, Sanderson said that the larger supermarkets are careful about the sprout growers they buy from, checking to see if they’re following the proper food-safety practices.

But as with other produce, meat, egg or cheese recalls, some of the larger supermarkets have been named in sprout recalls.

Bottom line, said Sanderson, even though sprouts are widely regarded as nutritious and for the most part grown according to food-safety standards, there are no 100 percent assurances about their safety.

“No food is 100 percent safe,” she said. “Unfortunately, that’s just a fact of life.”