As two ongoing multistate outbreaks linked to alfalfa sprouts unfold, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that the safest way to consume sprouts is to cook them. Sprouts are a known source of food poisoning that have been the source of more than 40 outbreaks over the last 20 years, causing 2,405 illnesses, 171 hospitalizations, and three deaths federal health officials say.
Currently there are two outbreaks linked to alfalfa sprouts. One is a Salmonella outbreak linked to sprouts produced by Sweetwater Farms in Kansas that sickened 13 people in Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Pennsylvania hospitalizing five of them. The other is an E.coli outbreak linked to sprouts produced by Jack and the Green Sprouts of River Falls, Wis. which has sickened nine people in Minnesota and Wisconsin hospitalizing two. Consumers who have purchased sprouts linked to either outbreak should not eat them.
A quick tally of sprouts recalls Food Poisoning Bulletin has documented in recent years shows there were at least six recalls in 2015, three in 2014 (sprouts produced by Wonton Foods were linked to a Salmonella outbreak that year that sickened 115 people in 12 states but the company never issued a recall), once in 2013 and eight times in 2012. Also in 2012, Kroger, one of the nation’s largest grocery retailers decided to stop selling sprouts because of the risk they pose.
In 2014, there were three “sproutbreaks” each caused by a different pathogen. A Salmonella Enteritidis outbreak sickened 115 people in 12 states, an E.coli O121 outbreak sickened 19 people in six states and a two-state Listeria outbreak killed two people and sickened three others.
In 2012, an E. coli O26 outbreak linked to clover sprouts served at Jimmy John’s sickened 29 people in 11 states. And in 2011, another Salmonella Enteritidis sprout break occured sickening 25 people in four states.
In 2010, there were two multistate sproutbreaks. One, caused by Salmonella serotype I 4,,12:i:- sickened 140 people in 26 states. The other, caused by Salmonella Newport, sickened 44 people in 11 states. And in 2009, a Salmonella St Paul outbreak sickened 235 people in 14 states.
Why are sprouts such a common source of food poisoning?
The growing conditions. Warm, humid environments with nutrient-rich soils are the ideal growing conditions for sprouts. And for bacteria.
To prevent contamination, growers are supposed to take measures to prevent bacteria from entering the growing area such as treating seeds, testing irrigation water, testing for Listeria and taking corrective actions if any samples are positive. But plenty of contaminated sprouts are still making their way to the market, so how can consumers protect themselves?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that children, older adults, pregnant women, and those with weakened immune systems avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind. This includes alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts.
Cooking sprouts kills pathogens and is the best way for all consumers to reduce their risk of food poisoning. When dining out, don’t order foods with raw sprouts or ask if they can be removed from menu items of interest.