Are raw sprouts safe?  For consumers: Part One

The reasoning behind why sprouts can be harmful to the consumer.

In 2011, an outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis was linked to alfalfa sprouts and spicy sprouts in the United States. This was right after an outbreak of European E. coli O104 in Germany which sickened thousands and was linked to 50 deaths. Recalls of sprouts as a result of Listeria created yet more concern in the United States. Each of these outbreaks was linked to a different harmful bacteria that are feared in foodborne illnesses.  Since that time, many restaurants have taken sprouts off their menu including the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s. Sprouts still appear at some farmers markets and are desired for adding flavor to salads, juices or entrees both by professional chefs and home cooks.

What causes sprouts to be dangerous? How can sprouts be safely consumed? 

Bacteria that cause foodborne illness can lurk anywhere that there is a host for them to thrive. In sprouts, the seed can and does carry the foodborne illness pathogen. This is why we have to take advisories such as “Refrigerate after opening” very seriously and do our best to minimize the sources of foodborne illness in our own homes. Michigan State University Extension has a team of educators dedicated to helping consumers understand the risk and hazards of foodborne illness.  

The common hosts for foodborne illness are categorized as “potentially hazardous foods” or PHFs. Raw sprouts are listed among other foods that are categorized as PHFs, as are meats, dairy products, cut melons, cut tomatoes and cut leafy greens. PHF’s must be kept colder than 41 degrees Fahrenheit or must be kept above 135 F (please note this is holding time, not cooking temperature which varies based on the food type). The University of California at Davis advises that “The best conditions for sprouting are also ideal for multiplication of pathogenic bacteria if they happen to be present on the seed.” So seeds are sprouting in the ideal conditions for bacteria to grow and sprouts are a documented host for many different bacteria that cause foodborne illness. This is why raw sprouts are potentially hazardous foods.

The designation of PHF does not mean that people shouldn’t eat these foods or shouldn’t purchase these foods.  Much like ordering a steak or an egg in any other way but fully cooked, eating raw sprouts means you run the risk of contracting a foodborne illness when you eat it. In healthy individuals these foodborne illnesses are nothing more than a day or two of nausea or diarrhea. For those who would be considered highly susceptible or vulnerable to foodborne illness including young children, the elderly, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems, it could mean long term health issues such as severe rheumatoid arthritis, miscarriage, kidney failure or death. Instead, the designation of PHF means that these foods need to be carefully prepared and stored at the proper temperature, and if not handled correctly, discarded without being consumed. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) enforces the Michigan Food Code which lists raw sprouts as a potentially hazardous food and requires time and temperature control for food safety. This means the storage and holding of this product must be closely monitored. The time/temperature control for safety for raw sprouts is 41 F (5 degrees Celsius). 

Other articles in this series:

Are raw sprouts safe?  For growers : Part Two

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