Cooked sprouts pose no health risk. Cooking is the time-honored method of killing food-borne pathogens. However, the rise of the health food movement of the 1960s and '70s brought a vogue for raw alfalfa and clover sprouts. By 1996, state and federal officials had identified these health food staples as the source of a series of high-profile food poisonings. Sprouts originating from Californian alfalfa seed caused more than 500 confirmed cases of salmonella. But it was an epic outbreak in Japan of E. coli O157:H7 that alerted authorities to the potential for disaster. More than 6,000 people were affected, almost 10 times the number of the 1993 Jack in the Box outbreak that rocked the U.S. meat industry.
A review of industry practice by the Food and Drug Administration and California Department of Health Services revealed a host of risks. First, unlike other crops, sprouts are considered ready-to-eat foods. Again, unlike mature vegetables, they are finished in warm, wet and dark conditions ideal for microbial growth. Irrigation water could come from wells and ditches and often introduce the contamination. Sprout growers tended to use seeds intended for usual cultivation, rather than the high-hygiene health food crop. Scarring of seeds to promote germination allowed bacteria to penetrate the surface.
In 1999, a series of safety measures was introduced, which included treating the seeds with chlorine dilutions and regular testing of irrigation water. According to Jay Louie, a Fresno sprout grower and president of the International Sprout Growers Assn., these interventions were needed. They have made sprouts "a safe food" and leading growers have complied, he says.
But consumers should ask at farmers markets, Louie says, whether the growers believe in the FDA sprout-growing protocols. Smaller operators and some organic sprouters protest the use of chlorine and refuse to comply, he says.
Organic growers, such as the Sproutpeople in Viroqua, Wis., insist the bacterial danger from untreated seed is exaggerated and that their industry has been unfairly victimized. "Just say no to dogma," reads the message on the Sproutpeople Web site.
Jeff Farrar of the California Department of Health Services investigated the first California outbreak. "We've had somewhere around 13 or 14 sprout-related outbreaks over the last four or five years," he says. He praises growers who have upgraded facilities to meet FDA guidelines but, like Louie, says compliance has been incomplete. He advises that children, those with suppressed immune systems and the elderly not eat raw sprouts.
"They should not be served in schools and not be served in hospitals. There should be no discussion about that," he says.