Should Sprouts Be Trashed

ShouldSprouts Be Trashed?


International Specialty Supply

June 5, 2002


“Iherd that the CDC and California Department of Health are coming out withanother article trashing sprouts.  Whydo they continue to do this?”


Healthofficials concern for consumers who eat sprouts is not ill conceived. Sprouts, grown without controls, are a serious health risk, particularlyto those with weak immune systems.

Althoughthere had been a couple other outbreaks associated with sprouts throughout theworld, sprouts really did not come onto the CDC’s radar until 1994 whenoutbreaks involving 282 cases of salmonella poisoning were reported in Swedenand 210 cases in Finland. Both outbreaks were associated with the consumption ofalfalfa sprouts made from seeds imported from Australia. Alfalfa sprouts were again implicated in an outbreak in Denmark in 1995.

In1995, an outbreak, involving alfalfa sprouts was reported in Oregon and BritishColumbia. Another large international outbreak occurred in 1995 in Finland andthe USA (Arizona, Michigan and 15 other states) caused by alfalfa sproutscontaminated with Salmonella stanley.

Atotal of 242 cases were identified in the USA and Finland. Based on theunder-reporting rates defined for Salmonella outbreaks, the actual number ofcases was probably between 5000-24,000.  Thisis based on information in the FDA Report “A Summary of Background Informationand Foodborne Illness Associated with the Consumption of Sprouts”, which canbe found by going to the “Information” and “Links” section of ourwebsite at

Eachyear the situation appeared to be worsening and by 1999 health officials wereready to insist that sprouts contain warning labels.

TheCDC supplied information for 1999 outbreaks at the website of the OutbreakResponse and Surveillance Unit, A Program of the Foodborne and DiarrhealDisease Branch of the Centers for Disease Control.  I pulled the sprout related outbreaks from their table andcompared them to all bacteria related outbreaks.  The information is below.



IllSuspected VehicleLocationComments
Salmonella TyphimuriumCOJan112Clover sproutsOther
SalmonellaMbandakaMultiJan83Alfalfa sproutsMultiple or UnknownMultistate: AZ,CA,GA,MI,OH,OR,VA,WA
Salmonella SaintpaulCAMay36Clover sproutsOther
Salmonella MuenchenWIAug61Alfalfa sproutsMultiple or Unknown
Salmonellaspp.MISep34Alfalfa sproutsMultiple or Unknown
Salmonella MuenchenCAOct38Alfalfa sproutsMultiple or Unknown
Salmonella EnteritidisCADec108Chicken, mung bean sproutsRestaurant or delicatessen
Total Sprout CasesMultiAll 1999472SproutsMultiple7 sprout related outbreaksinvolving 472 people.  All sprout related outbreaks in 1999 involved Salmonella
All Confirmed Bacterial Outbreaks Other Than SproutsMultiAll 19996121Food other than sproutsMultiple215 total outbreaks other than sprouts involving 6121 people. Outbreaks include:

E.coli, Salmonella, Listeria, Shigella, Bacillus cereus, Yersenia Campylobacter, Clostridium, Vibrio, Staphylococcus

Fromtheir table it can be said that in 1999 sprouts made up 7.2% of all thefoodborne outbreaks known to be due to bacterial etiologies, including thosefrom an unknown source (sprouts, chicken, ice cream, etc.).  If you subtract unknown sources, it appears sprouts wouldhave contributed to about 10% of all bacteriological foodborne outbreaks in1999.

Theaverage size of confirmed sprout outbreak involved 67.5 cases. The average size of confirmed outbreak other than sprouts was 28.5cases.

If welook only at the salmonella statistics for 1999 that are from knownsources we find that there were 72 non-sprout related outbreaks,involving 2423 known people (33.7 cases/outbreak). There were 7 sprout related outbreaks, involving 472 people (67.4cases/outbreak).  Not only was thenumber of outbreaks high, the cases per outbreak were exactly double thaton non-sprout related outbreaks.

Withproper seed sampling, inspection and testing, seed sanitization, and posttesting of spent irrigation water, the industry has nearly eliminated sproutrelated outbreaks in the US.  Basedon news reports, since the beginning of 2000 there has only been two sproutrelated outbreaks.  Both came fromCalifornia.  One involved 45 casesin March 2000.  The other, in March2001, involved 23 cases in four states.  Nooutbreaks have been reported in the last 14 months.

So theissue is, should health officials treat sprouts as though they are no longer afood safety concern?  Hardly. At this stage health officials need to keep on the full court press withregard to making sure sprout growers in their area are using seed that isproperly sampled, inspected and tested, the seed is sanitized, spent irrigationwater is tested, and sprout growers are operating under an effective HACCP planand using good manufacturing practices.

Towrite the history of sprout outbreaks is one thing.  To warn the public not to eat sprouts based on old history islike telling people not to drink the water in London because the Tames has ahistory of cholera.  It ismisleading.

Tremendousstrides have been taken by the sprouting industry since 1999. Growers have taken the necessary steps to prevent outbreaks and produce anutritious food product.  In 1999there may have been seven sprout related outbreaks, but in 2001 there were morethan seven growers who prevented outbreaks by not shipping product because thefound salmonella in their spent irrigation water. Others have likely prevented outbreaks by buying seed that is properlysampled, inspected and tested, and by sanitizing their seed prior to planting.

Weneed to thank the government officials who helped us, and continue to help us,improve the safety of the sprouts.  Atthe rate the industry is improving it won’t be long until sprouts are thesafest, most nutritious item on the produce shelf.  It would be a shame if the public were afraid to eat thembecause of news coming from the government that is incomplete or no longeraccurate.