Should sprouts come with a warning label?

March 02, 2016

While some consider them a health food, many others see sprouts as a food safety nightmare. They have a longstanding concern of being contaminated with pathogens and when eaten raw, can cause serious health consequences.

The dangers of raw sprouts were made apparent once again last week as the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced they are investigating a multistate outbreak of Salmonella muenchen linked to alfalfa sprouts. In addition, news of another outbreak recently broke, in which nine people in Minnesota and Wisconsin have been sickened so far by E. coli-tainted sprouts.

In fact, since 1998 there have been at least 49 foodborne outbreaks, including 24 multistate outbreaks and 1,737 illnesses tied to sprouts, according to a tally kept by Colorado State University. This type of data has caused some retail grocery stores to deem sprouts “too dangerous to sell” and has led them to stop carrying sprouts altogether. This has raised the question among some food safety professionals of whether or not sprouts should come with a warning label.

An example of this is seen with a popular sandwich chain that has experienced first-hand multiple outbreaks linked to sprouts over the course of a five-year period. While it is still offering them on its menu, a warning stating that consuming raw sprouts may result in an increased risk of foodborne illness and poses a health risk to everyone, has been added.

A recent article explains that sprout seeds need warmth and humidity to grow — which also happen to be ideal conditions for pathogens to flourish. Because of the number of outbreaks associated with sprouts, the FDA developed special requirements for sprout growers within the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) that will soon go into effect. A few years ago, the agency also helped launch the Sprout Safety Alliance, with the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Linda Harris, a microbiologist at University of California, Davis, said in the article that sprouts continue to be a problem because they're challenging. Whether they're alfalfa, mung bean, red clover or radish sprouts, they're grown in warm environments and usually eaten raw.

"Efforts to reduce risk include testing seed, testing seed water. Soaking seed in sanitizers is another — none of which are foolproof," Harris said. "It reduces risk, but the fact is, we still see outbreaks on a regular basis."

Continued outbreaks are the reason some food safety experts have been crusading for a warning label for all kinds of sprouts. At least, until a magic bullet emerges to fix the problem. Harris says that hasn't happened yet.

"I think there's been an effort to find some solution, but honestly, as a microbiologist, I think [sprouts are] always going to be a higher-risk product, at least under current technology," Harris continued.

According to the CDC, roughly one in six Americans (or 48 million people) get sick from outbreaks associated with foodborne illness. 128,000 of these people are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of foodborne diseases each year. While FSMA aims in part to decrease these numbers, a warning label on sprouts is something still up for discussion.

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Category: Food Safety