July 2, 2011

Safety of Sprouts

Nan Jensen RD, LD/N Extension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences, Pinellas County Extension

Sprouts have long been considered a healthy food low in calories, sodium and fat and filled with fiber, vitamins and health-promoting phytochemicals. Recently though they have come under fire because of the recent foodborne illness outbreaks in Germany. Since 1996, there have been at least 30 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with different types of raw sprouts. The seed is typically the source of the bacteria in outbreaks associated with sprouts. Sprouts are produced by soaking the seeds in water and then putting them in a warm, moist environment for 3 to 7 days to encourage them to germinate and grow. These conditions are also ideal for the growth of bacteria, including Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli.

The FDA has provided the sprout industry with guidance on reducing the risk of contamination of sprouts by harmful bacteria. There are a number of approved techniques to kill harmful bacteria that may be present on seeds and even tests for seeds during sprouting, but no treatment is guaranteed to eliminate all harmful bacteria.

Even homegrown sprouts can pose a threat but there are some steps consumers can take to treat the seeds before they are sprouted. The publication Growing Sprouts at Home by the University of California Division of Agricultural Resources tells you how.

As a consumer, you can reduce your risk of illness from consuming sprouts by following this advice.


• When shopping for sprouts, make sure you purchase them from the refrigerated section.

• Examine the package carefully to make sure there are no signs of spoilage.

• Look for the sell by date and do not purchase if the date has passed.
During preparation:

• Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and persons with weakened immune systems should avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind (including alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts).Cooking sprouts can kill the bacteria, thereby reducing the risk of illness.

• Begin with clean hands. Wash your hands for 20 seconds with warm water and soap before and after preparing any fresh produce.

• Rinse sprouts with cool water just before preparing or eating. This procedure will reduce the bacteria but will not eliminate it. Do not use soap or detergents.

• Wash and sanitize utensils, cutting boards, counters and the kitchen sink, after coming into contact with fresh produce as well as raw meat and poultry items. To sanitize, mix 1 teaspoon of bleach to 1 quart of water. Pour mixture on surfaces or submerge items for at least 1 minute. Rinse surfaces well with hot water and air dry utensils.

• Always use clean cutting boards for any type of fresh produce.
For more information on food safety and handling, visit the FDA website at or call FDA Consumer Inquiries toll free at 1-888-SAFEFOOD.

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