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Are U.S. Sprouts Safe?

As Europe reels from the illnesses caused by sprouts apparently grown on an organic farm in Germany, a look at U.S. food safety.


German authorities now say that sprouts grown on an organic farm in Lower Saxony are the source of their E. coli O104:H4 outbreak, now responsible for more than 30 deaths and 3,000 illnesses, 750 of them severe kidney disease.

The epidemiological studies point to sprouts after all.

Sprouts, as I mentioned in an earlier post, are a prime suspect in microbial outbreaks. They have been implicated in many outbreaks in the United States. This is because sprouts are sprouted from minute seeds that are hard to clean.

As Food Safety News explains in a long discussion of this problem, the seeds need to be dumped in bleach to kill bacteria. It's also a really good idea to test the wash water to make sure it is free of pathogens.

The seeds are sprouted in water at room temperature, "a warm, moist climate — just perfect for a bacteria's social life and subsequent reproduction."

The FDA has been aware of this problem for a long time, as shown by this brief chronology:

The Food Safety Modernization act passed last year finally gives FDA the authority to require food safety controls for sprouts.

The German outbreak ought to be a wakeup call for this industry in the United States. Sellers of bean sprouts market them as health foods but say little about how unsafe they are if eaten raw.

It also ought to be a wakeup call for consumers. If you aren't absolutely sure the seeds come from a clean source, cook your sprouts.

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Marion Nestle

Marion Nestle

Noted author Marion Nestle is a Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of What to Eat.
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What To Eat: Expert advice on food, health and nutrition issues that are in the news.
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