Every few years there are warnings about sprouts, after one of the periodic outbreaks of illness caused by them. The most recent outbreak, a few months ago in Germany, was the worst yet. At least 50 people died and thousands were sickened, apparently after eating sprouts grown from imported organic fenugreek seeds that were contaminated with a particularly dangerous strain of E. coli.
Many of us like crunchy sprouts in a salad or sandwich. They have an aura of healthfulness and freshness. So why are sprouts so big a risk that food-safety experts have even coined a term for widespread illness caused by them—sproutbreaks? And why aren’t organic sprouts safer?
The germination of a sproutbreak
Any raw or undercooked food carries some risk. That is especially true in poorer countries, where lack of good sanitation and food-safety systems makes it essential to peel fruit and avoid other uncooked food. But outbreaks are increasingly common in developed countries, especially when produce is contaminated by bacteria from farm animals—usually from manure that is used as fertilizer or gets into irrigation water.
All kinds of sprouts—especially alfalfa, clover and mung beans—can harbor Salmonella, E. coli and other bacteria. Seeds can become contaminated during harvesting, storage or sprouting. Sprouting requires warm, wet conditions that are perfect for bacterial growth. Even if seeds are only slightly contaminated, millions of bacteria can grow during the sprouting process. In any case, it doesn’t take many organisms of the virulent strains of E. coli to cause illness. Organic growing methods do not reduce the risk, nor does growing sprouts at home.
Cooking kills these bacteria, but sprouts are usually eaten raw. (Salad greens are risky for the same reason.) Washing sprouts may reduce the risk, but doesn’t eliminate it. That’s why the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has long warned about sprouts and has worked with growers in attempts to eliminate unsanitary conditions in harvesting and sprouting. The FDA recommends that growers and home sprouters sanitize seeds, usually by bathing them in a diluted chlorine bleach solution, but does not require it. And the beans can still become contaminated when sprouting.
Food for thought
If you’re in good health, you may wish to continue eating sprouts. Many of us occasionally eat risky foods, such as raw oysters. Life is not risk-free, and foods are not sterile. If you put raw sprouts on a rare hamburger, the hamburger is more likely to make you sick than the sprouts, since undercooked ground meat is a leading cause of E. coli-related illness in the U.S.
Buy sprouts that look crisp and fresh; avoid those that have a musty odor or appear dark or slimy. Purchase sprouts only if they are refrigerated, and keep them refrigerated at 40°F (4.4°C) or below.
The only way to ensure safety is to cook sprouts to 165°F (74°C), but that destroys their most appealing qualities. If you add large bean sprouts to a stir-fry, let them simmer for a few minutes.
Bottom line: People with weakened immune systems, as well as the very old, the very young and pregnant women, should not take a chance on raw sprouts. But when a serious outbreak occurs, as in Germany, anyone can become ill. We think sprouts should carry a warning label saying this.