Fresh, raw sprouts are among the most notorious of offenders in terms of foodborne illness outbreaks with almost 2,500 confirmed victims, including three deaths, in the past 20 years in the U.S. alone.
Add in the 2011 E. coli outbreak in Europe — which sickened more than 3,900 people, killing 53 and leaving about 800 with possible kidney failure from hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) — and one begins to wonder why there aren’t photos of sprouts on post office walls.
The dangers have not discouraged sprout enthusiasts, though, be they consumers or growers. After all, the nutritional value of sprouts is easily documented and they add a bit of crunch and subtle flavor to everything from sub sandwiches to pasta salad.
And they’re so easy to grow, as demonstrated on countless window sills in kindergarten classrooms and home kitchens across the country. All you really need is water, seeds or beans, and enough warmth to entice Mother Nature to do her thing. And therein lies the rub.
The same conditions needed for optimal sprout production are the living conditions of choice for bacteria such as E. coli, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella.
“But if you do it right, there’s not a problem,” sprout growers and lovers inevitably say.
I couldn’t agree more.
Unfortunately, there are people who do it wrong. Some of them are those industrious home chefs who grow their own and inadvertently poison their family and friends from time to time. Others are commercial growers who ship their sprouts to retailers and foodservice operations ranging from five-star restaurants to elementary school salad bars.
I’ve been watching the fresh sprout scene relatively closely since February 2011 when I went to work as a staff writer for fresh produce trade publication The Packer newspaper. That’s also when I stopped eating fresh, raw sprouts. I won’t even grow my own now that I understand the science behind the situation.
Granted, I don’t have all of the technical terms on the tip of my tongue, but by interviewing scientists, growers, industry watchdogs and government employees, and reviewing research and statistics related to sprouts, I’ve come to understand that growing safe sprouts for human consumption is a difficult, complex undertaking that masquerades as a simple process.
To do it right — which I personally define as producing sprouts that won’t poison people — pristine conditions are required, along with an absolute commitment to relentless cleaning, sanitizing and pathogen testing. It’s not brain surgery, but it can be just as deadly if it’s not done right.
Toward that end, the Food and Drug Administration published its long-awaited draft guidance to help sprout growers comply with the produce safety rule, which is one of the congressionally mandated regulations in the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). Sprouts are so problematic that FDA included a special section on them in the produce rule.
Topics covered in the draft guidance include:
- General sprout production;
- Buildings, tools and equipment;
- Cleaning and sanitizing;
- Agricultural water in sprouting operations;
- Seeds for sprouting;
- Sampling and testing of spent sprout irrigation water or sprouts;
- Environmental monitoring; and
Some people might say the sprout draft guidance and produce rule are an example of big government intervening in business operations. I contend they are an example of what Abraham Lincoln was talking about when he referred to a government “for the people.”
Now it’s time for you to meet the challenge of the Gettysburg Address and do the “by the people” part.
Take a look at the sprout draft guidance. You don’t have to read the entire 125-page document — check out pages 16-27 for Sections 3 and 4, “General Sprout Production” and “Buildings, Tools and Equipment.” You’ll see that the “government intervention” is chock full of outrageous guidelines for growers such as:
“You must visually examine seeds, and packaging used to ship seeds, for signs of potential contamination with known or reasonably foreseeable hazards. This visual exam of seeds and their packaging upon receipt is one of the first steps to take at your operation to reduce the chance of seeds serving as a source of contamination in the sprouts you produce.”
After you take a gander at the guidance, take a few more minutes to send the FDA your comments and use the power President Trump referenced in his inaugural remarks: “… we are transferring power from Washington D.C. and giving it back to you, the American people.”
Editor’s note: For information on how to submit comments, click here. All submissions must include the Docket No. FDA-2017-D-0175 for “Compliance with and Recommendations for Implementation of the Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing, and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption for Sprout Operations.”
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