Sprouts have been in the news lately. Unfortunately bad news travels faster than good news and even if the bad news turns out as inaccurate, the damage done may be impossible to repair. Presently, no less than two politicians have resigned from office after making headline news about scandals. In both cases, the accusations of their guilt have done sufficient damage to end their careers regardless of whether or not they are ultimately exonerated.
Right up front I’ll tell you that looking at the statistics relative to other foods sprouts are very safe and that I think they are taking the heat for what is a universal food industry problem. Whether it is E. coli or salmonella, sprouts are an easy target. As an industry, it is economically small and weak. Sadly, the sprout industry has never been organized well enough to speak out in its own defense. So consumers like you don’t get to hear the other side of the story and the bad news just sticks. Not all seeds are created equal. Careful selection of clean sprouting seeds is essential to issues of both quality and safety.

Sprouts make the news for a few reasons: First, they’re a health food and it is a sensational news story when a “health food” makes people sick. Second, they are a raw food, so sprouts don’t kill bacteria as you do when you poach an egg or barbecue a burger. Third, the warmth and moisture needed for germination is also a good environment for propagating bacteria. That being said, E. coli is not a sprout problem any more than it is a tomato, spinach, or lettuce problem. Same thing for salmonella. The source of these bacteria is the intestines of a cow or a chicken. It is manure that infects food and no food is immune to contamination. Dried particles of cow manure can drift onto vegetables by riding the dust from the ranch up the road. Since 100,000 E. coli can fit on the head of a pin, it doesn’t take much to contaminate your crop. It can get on your shoes or clothes and then the worker becomes the carrier. If it gets into the water and the water washes produce, then that food becomes the vehicle. So when people get poisoned, who is to blame? Should we blame the sprouts? The cucumbers? The farmers? The cows? This is a complex problem.

Food Poisoning Is Serious Business

I don’t want for a second to forget that thousands of people have been sickened or the dozens killed by food poisoning. Truly, no farmer of sprouts, produce, or beef wants the result of their hard work to harm anyone. Sprouts are in a unique position because the very things that makes them healthy—their raw, bio-active state and the miracle of germination—are also the factors that make them susceptible to transporting microbes. No one wants to cook green sprouts for the same reason we don’t want to cook our lettuce or cucumbers. We already have enough processed, canned, microwaved, fried, and irradiated foods in our society. Our high rates of obesity and diabetes are testifying loudly that we need to eat more raw, natural foods for optimum health. Even the U.S. National Cancer Institute recommends five portions of raw fruit or vegetables daily as part of their cancer prevention diet. For our health’s sake, we need to be able to consume fruits, vegetables, and other plant foods in their vital state. Should you be worried when you harvest those greens from your backyard garden? Could an animal have contaminated them? When you eat out in a restaurant, have the workers practiced good hygiene that day? There are risks inherent in eating natural foods. But would you prefer to only eat cooked and canned? Irradiated or pasteurized? We’ve had this scare before with raw milk and unpasteurized (raw) apple cider. Now those foods—which your grandparents grew up with—have been outlawed.

Could It Be on the Seeds?

Seeds are a possible avenue of contamination for sprouts and any other type of seeds, nuts, and grains. Droppings or particles of manure can contaminate seed during harvesting. Last week I received a recall request for sesame seeds that I had purchased for personal use. They were just for eating, not sprouting. But the distributor contacted us and required me to dispose of them. And perhaps you have noticed that raw tahini is no longer available for purchase. (Tahini is made from sesame seeds.) Since sprouts are a form of seed intensive gardening, the sprout industry has focused on testing and retesting its seeds. Although I am not a commercial grower, I do have a line of organic sprouting seeds. Most of the time, my focus is on getting the best growth qualities. I select my seeds for such factors as no mold, best germination, fastest rate of growth, tallest, greenest, best taste. I want you to have a delicious and bountiful growing experience.

But I also check for the invisible. First the farmer provides a certificate of analysis (in most cases) in which he guarantees that the seed was tested for pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella. But I rarely buy direct from the farmer. I mostly buy from seed warehouses. The warehouses also test their seed. (Test number two.) They poke a test tube into every bag and merge all the samples together. The lab tests the seeds for a variety of pathogens, and issues a certificate.  Until this certificate is issued, those seeds are quarantined. As soon as they can be sold, professional sprout growers test a third time. They test the rinse water from the growing sprouts and hold their product from release to the public until the lab results on that batch return clean. If the seeds were uniformly contaminated, there is a 99% chance it would show up on one of these 3 tests. There is no such thing as 100% in microbiology. Commercial sprout growers follow strict sanitary procedures much like silicone chip manufacturers. They wear hairnets, booties, gloves, and follow lots of sanitary rules above and beyond the simple washing of hands. But this is a small industry with many players who unfortunately do not all follow the rules. The organic sprout farm in Saxony (Germany), for example, is not a member of the International Sprout Growers Association. Sadly, we don’t know anything about their manufacturing practices. We don’t know if they tested their seeds. Until all sprout growers can follow established safety protocols, outbreaks caused by independents will perpetuate fear for consumers buying product even from the safest and most conscientious companies.

Implication vs. Verification

Governments have a responsibility to keep food safe and safety regulators have a tough job. They need to identify the source of the contaminated food, which means tracing invisible bacteria. In order to minimize the damage, they need to identify the contaminated food quickly and stop people from eating it. That’s not easy. Through the course of interviews, they attempt to isolate the foods eaten by the sickened consumers. If they can find a thread connecting the same food in those interviews, then that food becomes suspect. Often this is enough evidence, but not always. It is by no means a perfect system. But lives are at stake so they need to move fast, and sometimes they just have to go with their best guess based on these interviews. But regulators have also gotten it wrong.
In the case of German E. coli outbreak, at first they thought it was the Spanish cucumbers. Then they thought it was the tomatoes. Then they implicated the farm in lower Saxony that grows organic vegetables and also has a greenhouse for growing sprouts. They never actually found traces of the bacteria in the sprout factory or anywhere on the organic farm. However, the authorities need to take their best shot and stop the distribution of the potentially contaminated food. Their job is to protect the public and calm their fears. If they cannot identify the culprit, then the political and economic pressures increase. Finding the guilty food is both a health and safety as well as a political and economic necessity, regardless of whether or not that food is ultimately proven to be guilty.

This was the case in 1996 in Japan when radish sprouts were accused of the largest E. coli outbreak in history (more people sickened than in Germany). Press releases warned consumers against eating sprouts. Sprout sales plummeted worldwide. But ultimately the Japanese government admitted that sprouts were not at fault and compensated sprout growers for damages. Sadly for the sprout industry, the implication was front page news, but the retraction got little press. Even today, most people believe that radish sprouts were the cause of that outbreak. It even remains a part of government documents and research articles. The repercussions from that event continue to trigger suspicions about sprouts whenever outbreaks occur.

What Is the Sprout Industry Doing to Protect You

The commercial sprout growers trade association (ISGA) http://www.isga-sprouts.org is too small to regulate all sprout growers. Their active members take food safety very seriously and follow strict sanitary handling procedures and the lab testing of both the seed and grown sprouts. The ISGA has recently developed a sprout-specific safety protocol in conjunction with the National Center for Food Safety and Technology (NCFST). But there are hundreds of commercial growers who are not members of the trade association (including the farm in Germany). Their safety procedures are simply unknown. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has recommended sprout growers use a heavy dose of bleach to kill pathogens. But most growers are reluctant to follow that because it is hazardous both to employees and the environment. Its effectiveness is also a question. Pathogens can hide out in the crevices where fluids like bleach and water barely penetrate. There are several promising alternative measures such as pasteurizing seeds briefly at temperatures under 200°F. show promise. And home growers often ask about disinfecting seeds with hydrogen peroxide or grapefruit seed extract. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough data to evaluate their effectiveness. Personally, I have seen their misuse ruin too many crops. Again, I think growing the sprouts and testing the rinse water is one of the most reliable tests we have.

Meat and Irradiation

The meat industry would like nothing better than to keep the focus on sprouts. Remember, it is manure that is the root of this contamination. The virulent Shiga strain of E. coli O104 in Germany that caused 41 deaths was likely a mutation caused by the cattle industry’s overindulgence and pre-emptive use of antibiotics. Since the bugs became familiar with the drugs, they didn’t work when the docs needed them to save lives. In the hysteria after an outbreak, it is politically expedient to find a smoking gun. When at first the Spanish cucumbers were blamed, Spain’s agricultural commissioner went on TV and lambasted the Germans for blaming cucumbers without sufficient proof. With loses of about 300 million dollars per day, Germany backed down. Pointing the finger at the tiny sprout industry, however, results in no resistance and minimal economic fallout. What about meat and poultry? Beef, baloney, poultry, and cheese were, since 2006, responsible for 9 out of the last 12 E. coli outbreaks in the U.S. But most of the time, the beef industry’s use of irradiation gets them off the hook. Irradiation is like giving your food a chest X-Ray. It means exposing food to radioactive isotopes. While it kills pathogens, it also kills and weakens sprouts. This then decreases the sprouts’ natural resistance to bacteria, shortens their lifespan, and makes them susceptible to other forms of contamination. That takes us right back to where we started.

The Big Picture

Here’s the bigger picture. According to the U.S. disease control center (CDC), there are 1.4 million cases of food poisoning annually in the United States. Of these, confirmed cases due to sprouts count in the dozens. This does not mean for a second that sprout growers should relax their efforts on safety and prevention. All it says is that sprouts should not be considered the default cause whenever another cannot be found. If sprouts are going to be implicated by interviews in the absence of laboratory evidence, then the public should know the full story—that is most bean sprout growers have effective systems in place to minimize the likelihood of contamination. This is true in the U.S. and also in Japan and Korea where bean sprouts have been a staple of the diet for hundreds of years and production methods are very sophisticated. Sure, sprouts can be carriers of pathogens. But rather than blaming them by default, the emphasis should be on preventing contamination of plant foods by manure. In this regard, the first step ought to be regulating the overuse of antibiotics in concentrated animal feeding operations. Then, we ought to redesign our broad distribution of food from central, high-volume facilities that co-mingle products from many different places. This allows a single source of contamination to spread quickly to a lot of people. Smaller-scale production, on the other hand, has an intrinsically lower-risk. And by the way, sprouts are among the most locally produced foods we have. If we don’t start working smarter in our struggle against food poisoning, then sprouts won’t be the only casualty. Next will come the push to irradiate all fresh foods. This will definitely be a disincentive for small startup food businesses and ultimately could result in higher prices and reduced availability of healthier fresh and natural foods. Let’s hope government regulators can demonstrate sanity and sound policy. It is your food choices we’re talking about so please make your voices heard wherever you can. P.S. If you want to help the tiny sprout industry defend itself in the press, please visit  www.isga-sprouts.org/contributiongen.htm and give whatever you can.