Aiming to help foster safer growing practices for sprout producers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced on Tuesday it would form a one-year partnership and grant $100,000 to the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH) to coordinate the Sprout Safety Alliance (SSA).

The SSA, a public-private organization, will develop outreach programs and training for the sprout industry to prepare growers for upcoming sprout safety regulatory requirements. Sprout-growing operations are subject to unique safety precautions, such as testing spent irrigation water and seed disinfection. 

The organization plans to develop safety training materials for sprout growers, provide tools to allow growers to conduct self-audits of their facilities, and ensure that growers understand the inherent risks associated with sprouts, which have been linked to at least 44 foodborne illness outbreaks in North America since 1990. The SSA will also serve as a hub for sprout industry resources by providing technical assistance to growers and networking them with buyers, retailers and regulatory agencies.

The FDA’s announcement comes within months of three prominent sandwich restaurant chains choosing to remove sprouts from their menus due to a mounting number of foodborne illness outbreaks linked to the food. 

Most recently, Jimmy John’s decided to stop serving sprouts after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced on February 15 that the restaurant’s sprouts were linked to an E. coli O26 outbreak that has sickened 14 people in six states. It was the fifth outbreak tied to Jimmy John’s sprouts in four years.

Earlier this year, Jason’s Deli and Erbert & Gerbert’s restaurants also dropped sprouts, each citing food safety concerns. Back in October 2010, Walmart stopped selling sprouts in its stores. The warm, wet environments needed to grow sprouts are also conducive to bacterial growth, making sprouts especially susceptible to carrying pathogens.

The IFSH, part of the Illinois Institute of Technology, is an applied research institute that focuses on designing practical approaches to challenges in the food industry.