Every time a food is recalled for possible Listeria monocytogenes contamination, the advice from food safety experts is to clean out the fridge with a mild bleach solution, since that bacteria can grow at refrigerator temperatures. Now, the FDA is recommending that anyone who bought alfalfa sprouts from Sweetwater Farms LLC should do the same.
Their advice is to wash the inside walls and shelves of the refrigerator, cutting boards, and countertops, then sanitize them with a solution of one tablespoon of chlorine bleach to one gallon of hot water; and dry with a clean cloth or paper towel that has not been previously used. Of course, cleaning your refrigerator regularly is important for food safety in general, but this advice is unusual with foods that may be contaminated with Salmonella bacteria.
The FDA also reminds people that sprouts are especially prone to contamination by pathogenic bacteria for several reasons. The warm and humid conditions used for growing sprouts are ideal for the growth of Salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes, and E. coli bacteria. The bacteria can multiply “dramatically” during the sprouting process. And remember that organic and locally-grown, even home-grown, sprouts are not less risky.
The problem lies in the sprouting method and with the seeds. Bacteria can be present in the seeds, which means that rinsing them before sprouting will do nothing to eliminate the risk. Rinsing the sprouts after they have grown, before eating them, can remove some of the bacteria present but not all of it.
For this reason, the FDA recommends that children, the elderly, pregnant women, people with weakened or compromised immune systems, and anyone with a chronic illness should never eat raw sprouts of any kind. Thorough cooking will reduce the risk of illness, but there is another risk. If the sprouts are highly contaminated, the bacteria could produce a toxin that could make you sick. And that toxin may not be destroyed by cooking.
There are two food poisoning outbreaks linked to sprouts that are currently ongoing, further highlighting this risk. The first is linked to alfalfa sprouts produced by Sweetwater Farms in Kansas. That outbreak has sickened at least 13 people in four states. Five people have been hospitalized because of the seriousness of their illness. Sweetwater sprouts from lot 042016 have been recalled.
The second outbreak was just announced by the Minnesota Department of Health. At least seven people in Minnesota and two people in Wisconsin are sick with E. coli O157:NM infections associated with alfalfa sprouts produced by Jack & The Green Sprouts. Two people in that outbreak have been hospitalized, and both have recovered. The sprouts are also recalled; they are packaged in a plastic clamshell with a brightly colored round label on top that notes the sprout variety. Alfalfa sprouts may be mixed in the same package with other sprout varieties.
Health officials recommend not eating any alfalfa sprouts produced by Jack & The Green Sprouts. The people sickened in this outbreak ate sprouts from grocery stores, cooperative stores, restaurants, salad bars, and commercial food service. Stay tuned and we’ll keep you informed about this ongoing outbreak.