Sprouts in Canada

Sprouts in Canada
Jan. 11/02
Douglas Powell, Katija Blaine and Ben Chapman
Commentary from the Food Safety Network
TheU.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday issued a renewed callfor Americans to avoid fresh alfalfa or other sprouts because of links to yetanother outbreak of foodborne disease.

Thisfollowing dozens of outbreaks of salmonella and E.coli O157:H7 linked to freshsprouts over the past decade — outbreaks which have sickened tens of thousands– and which prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998 towarn people of the risks associated with raw sprouts.

Butdon’t expect to hear much from the Canadian government. The latest outbreak, described in a CDC technical report published onFriday, involved a relatively rare strain of salmonella called S. kottbus, whichstruck 32 individuals in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico in Spring2001.

Investigatorsidentified a single sprout producer as the source of the contaminated sproutsusing seeds that had been imported from Australia in November 2000.

TheCDC was clear on Friday: People, particularly young children, the elderly andthose with weak immune systems, should avoid eating raw sprouts.

Dr.Mark Beatty of the CDC’s National Center for Infectious Diseases, was quoted assaying, “The immuno-compromised people could develop shock and die from theinfection,” although healthy people were at a lower risk for suchcomplications.

Beattywas further quoted as saying that last year’s outbreak in the four westernstates revealed a “misconception” that sprouts were a healthy food. Atleast three of the people involved in the outbreak ate sprouts partly for healthreasons.

Sproutspresent a special food safety challenge because the way they are grown — highmoisture and high temperature — also happens to be an ideal environment forbacterial growth.

Becauseof continued outbreaks, the sprout industry, regulatory agencies, and theacademic community pooled their efforts in the late 1990s to improve the safetyof the product, including the implementation of good manufacturing practices,establishing guidelines for safe sprout production and chemical disinfection ofseeds prior to sprouting.

Butare such guidelines actually being followed? And is anyone checking? And in atleast one case, it appears that the contamination was actually inside the seed;that is, no mount of care and cleanliness would have made the product safe.

Sowhile scientists grapple with complexities of seed contamination, consumers arerightly wondering, are sprouts safe? For many, especially the most vulnerable inour societies, the answer is no.

Forexample, in response to the 2001 outbreak, California Department of HealthServices and the California Department of Education recommend that schools stopserving uncooked sprouts to young children.

A dietrich in fresh fruits and vegetables is actively promoted as the cornerstone of ahealthy lifestyle. And it is. But there are risks, they need to be acknowledged,and they need to be managed. The very characteristic that affords dietarybenefit — fresh — also creates microbiological risk: Because they are notcooked, anything that comes into contact with fresh fruits and vegetables is apossible source of contamination.

Is thewater used for irrigation or rinsing clean or is it loaded with pathogens? Dothe workers who collect the produce follow strict hygienic practices such asthorough handwashing? Are the vehicles used to transport fresh produce also usedto transport live animals that could be sources of microbial contamination? Thepossibilities are almost endless.

Thefirst consumer warning about sprouts was issued by the CDC in 1997.  By July 9, 1999, the FDA advised all Americans to be aware of the risksassociated with eating raw sprouts. Consumers were informed that they needed tounderstand that at that time the best way to control the risk was to not eat rawsprouts.  Additional consumer advice provided in the advisory included thecooking of sprouts and specifically requesting that raw sprouts not be added tofoods at restaurants and delis.  The FDA stated that it would monitor thesituation and take any further actions required to protect consumers.

At thetime, several Canadian media accounts depicted the U.S. response as panic,quoting Health Canada officials as saying perhaps some were at risk, but thatsprouts were generally a low-risk product. One Canadian organic sprouts producerstated that sprouts was less a worry than all the chemicals farmers put on theircrops to fight weed and bugs.  Another sprouts grower stated that the riskfrom sprouts was probably better than risks associated with other foods such aseggs and meats, and, citing an innocent vanity that hopefully disappeared withthe outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Walkerton, Ont., that Canadian consumers hadnothing to fear since all the sprouts sold in Canada were grown there.

ACanadian Food Inspection Agency official stated that consumption of sprouts wasjust as hazardous as eating several other foods such as unpasteurized applejuice, soft cheeses, raw milk, oysters and undercooked chicken or hamburger, andthat raw sprouts were safe for normal healthy adults (we wouldn’t recommend anyof those foods for children or adults).

A yearlater, due to increasing numbers of illnesses linked to sprouts, the FDAexpanded its warning to advise against anyone eating raw sprouts. That advisorystill is in effect.

Sproutsthat are fully cooked do not seem to cause problems. CFIA issued several healthadvisories in 1998 and 1999 but these were advisories against consuming specificbrands of sprouts that were found to be contaminated. Canada has still notissues a general warning on consumption of raw sprouts in spite of 14 outbreaksof salmonella and 2 outbreaks of E. coli O157 linked to sprouts since 1995, fiveof which were in Canada. CFIA has a fact sheet describing sprout contaminationwhere they state they are encouraging industry to communicate the health risksand that public health officials are working with industry representatives toimplement safer growing methods while warning consumers about the risk of eatinguncooked sprouts. The major part of their sprout safety strategy is a samplingprogram.  The effect has beenminimal. Every government meeting we’ve attended in the past fewyears has featured a standard lunch of sandwiches and salads with prominenthelpings of sprouts. Americans are talking straight to their consumers.Canadians are being polite.

DouglasPowell is scientific director, Katija Blaine is a research assistant and BenChapman is a graduate student with the Food Safety Network at the University ofGuelph.

I Replied to Doug’s Article


I havegreat respect for you and your efforts to improve food safety through education. Although many of the facts you write in “Sprouts in Canada” areaccurate, there are critical factual points I must disagree with that lead to anerroneous conclusion.

Youwrite,  “And in at least one case, it appears that the contaminationwas actually inside the seed; that is, no mount of care and cleanliness wouldhave made the product safe.”  Regardless of the speculation that inrare instances a pathogen may be harbored within a seed, there is no basis forstating that “no mount of care and cleanliness would have made the productsafe.”

Manysprout growers use a several-pronged approach to insuring their sprouts aresafe.  Included in their definition of “care”, is to sampleevery bag of seed, inspect the seed, and test it for pathogens.  If the lotof seed is contaminated, even slightly, the odds of capture and detection areastronomical, regardless if the pathogen is in the seed.  If the seedpasses inspection and pathogen testing, it is sanitized, using FDAguidelines.  After 48 hours of sprouting, the runoff water is tested forpathogens.  The possibility that salmonella or E.coli 0157:H7 will make itthrough screening, sanitation, and post-testing is so unlikely that properlyproduced sprouts could be considered the safest produce on the shelf.

Youstate that, “The major part of their sprout safety strategy is a samplingprogram.  The effect has beenminimal.”  This is completely inaccurate.  The articleitself points out that there have been, “dozens of outbreaks of salmonellaand E.coli O157:H7 linked to fresh sprouts over the past decade — outbreakswhich have sickened tens of thousands…” and,  “The latestoutbreak …  struck 32 individuals in … in Spring 2001.” Going from “tens of thousands” to “32 individuals” nearly ayear ago, is more than minimal.

Youask: “Is the water used for irrigation or rinsing clean or is it loadedwith pathogens? Do the workers who collect the produce follow strict hygienicpractices such as thorough handwashing? Are the vehicles used to transport freshproduce also used to transport live animals that could be sources of microbialcontamination? The possibilities are almost endless.”

Theseare generic questions that should be asked of any food processor.  Thesprouting industry, as a whole, is very well educated in food safetyissues.  Producers use clean, tested water, have excellent HACCP plansand GMP’s, train their employees well, and maintain a clean facilityand transport equipment.

Youquote Dr. Mark Beatty of the CDC’s National Center for Infectious Diseases assaying that “last year’s outbreak in the four western states revealeda “misconception” that sprouts were a healthy food. At least three ofthe people involved in the outbreak ate sprouts partly for health reasons.”

Is itpossible that these people aren’t the idiots Dr. Beatty makes them out to be? Sprouts are not a fad food.  Theyhave been part of the human diet for thousands of years. They are an excellent source of nutrients that protect us against variousillnesses.  Most of thephytochemicals found in vegetables originate in the seed.  Manyof these phytochemicals are not any higher in a mature vegetable thanin the seed from which it came.  A sprout, being an entire plantin itself, also contains a full allotment of important phytochemicalsthat in some instances have proven to prevent disease, such as cancer.  Theadvantage of eating plants in the sprout stage is that you can eat moreindividual sprouts than you can heads of cabbage, for example.  Thereare approximately 1000 plants per ounce of cabbage sprouts.  Youwould need to eat many ounces of mature cabbage to consume one plant.  Thisis why an ounce of sprouts can be1000 times as potent in some phytochemicalsas an ounce of the mature plant.  This has been known for years.  Itdeserves the attention it is now getting but is not the rocket science someresearchers are trying to make it appear.

Sproutsare a good source of saponins, which lowers cholesterol and stimulate the immunesystem.  They contain highly activeantioxidants that help prevent DNA destruction and retard aging. They contain plant estrogens which help control PMS symptoms.  Youngplants, long known to be loaded with a wide variety nutrients andphytochemicals, will take on an important role as necessary in our diets.

Thesprouting industry has done an excellent job in dealing with what it recognizesis a serious health issue, while providing high quality products people want andneed.  No food is 100% safe.  Sprouts are getting closer everyday.


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