By: Pooja Sharma
Everybody links foodborne illnesses to undercooked or raw meat, egg or unpasteurized milk. They don’t realize that there is one riskier food among vegan foods that harbors the risk for both Salmonella and Listeria. Sprouts are almost as risky as meat, eggs, and dairy. Between the years 1996-2016, sprouts-related foodborne illness has caused a total of 46 outbreaks. The number is quite high considering the safety we associate with plant based foods.
In August 2017, FDA conducted a large scale pathogenic survey on sprouts to understand and analyze in detail the infections related to sprouts. The large scale sampling would also benefit consumers in the future. The program’s main purpose was to determine the prevalence of Salmonella, E. coli, and Listeria in sprouts.
FDA examined a total of 825 samples from 37 states, District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. In all, 14 of these samples tested positive for some kind of strain of bacteria. It was found that a majority of them came from workers that had a small number of sprouting operations. Out of 14 positive samples, 10 came from just 4 growers.
Since the FDA’s main aim from this operation was to understand the in depth process of contamination of the sprouts to protect the consumers, they conducted tests at three points in the process – seeds, finished product and the spent irrigation water. This is the breakdown of various strains of bacteria found:
- Salmonella: Salmonella strain was found in 2.35% of seed samples. In finished sprouts, the amount was 0.21% and in spent irrigation water, it was 0.53%. This proves that the major source of Salmonellosis outbreak is the seeds. Major care needs to be taken while handling the seed samples.
- Listeria monocytogenes: Listeria was found to be in a total of 1.28% of finished products. Like Salmonella, the prevalence of Listeria strain wasn’t linked to any particular production process. The presence of Listeria was almost similar in all the three points of the process indicating that the infection is majorly caused by environmental transmission. There have been findings in the past which has confirmed with the environmental transference of the Listeria strain on the sprouts. Therefore, the result from this study has further strengthened this conclusion.
- E. coli: None of the samples tested positive for E. coli.
To make sure that the positive samples don’t reach out to the consumers, the FDA has recalled those sprouts and in some cases, even asked the owners to destroy it. The FDA will also be conducting further operations at the production houses where contaminated sprouts were found. The FDA is also conducting further examinations in different production operations to ensure that they are complying with food safety standards required to prevent any outbreak. An in depth investigation will be conducted for those firms who have a history related to any outbreaks or recalls. One good thing that came out of the FDA’s large scale sampling is the prevention of outbreak that was almost on the verge of taking place.
Why are sprouts so risky?
Sprouts contamination is linked to the warm and humid temperature it needs for growth. The most common sprouts are Alfalfa sprouts and Mung Beans. The germination process of sprouts involves the germ or the mini plant inside every sprout to grow and sprout. This process requires water and warmth for around 2-3 days. There are many different causes of pathogen contaminating the sprouts. Number 1 among them are animals who roam around in the field when the plant is growing. Human feces can also be the source of contamination. Another major cause is water. Water from sewage or drains can easily reach the fields even after maintaining extra care. Water from tanks is also a source of growing pathogens.
So, why aren’t any other plant based produce affected by pathogens? Why is it only sprouts?
Because, when the pathogen reaches the seeds and plants, they are still small in number and don’t harm us even when they are ingested. However, in case of sprouts, the germination process gives the pathogen an amazing chance to multiply quickly. Microbes can double in a short span of 20 minutes, imagine the level they reach to in a few hours. Since the germination process also takes place in the low light, sunlight and UV rays can’t do their job either. It won’t make much of a difference if you are growing the sprouts at home. And the risk isn’t also less if you are going all organic. The sources of the contamination don’t change.
How to keep it safe?
Here are some pieces of advice that might help you in staying away from getting ill from sprouts.
- Cook the sprouts thoroughly before eating especially if come among the high-risk individual. Raw sprouts are not as safe to eat as cooked or boiled sprouts.
- Wash your hands thoroughly while handling the sprouts.
- When you buy the seeds, wash them thoroughly. If you are doing the germination process at home, make sure to wash the sprouts at each stage.
- Store the sprouts at 40℉ or lower.
- Do not go for sprouts that smell bad or look slimy.
- Buy fresh sprouts that are refrigerated and handled properly.
- If you are dining out and sprouts are a part of your meal, don’t hesitate to ask your waiter about how it has been stored. Or dine at restaurants that have a high turnover so at least the food will be fresh.
High-risk individuals should particularly stay away from sprouts, especially raw sprouts. High-risk individuals include children, elderly, pregnant women and people already suffering from life threatening illnesses. If you do want to have sprouts, make sure that it’s thoroughly cooked. If you are still concerned, do talk to your doctor about it as he may be able to suggest safe tips based on the area you live in.
In future, the FDA also plans to conduct analysis on the growing, packaging, supply, storing of sprouts to gain further information on the production process as a whole. They will further come up with better ways and standards for production and sanitation of sprouts to prevent any illnesses.