EDITORIALS

Sprouts show food safety shortcomings

Posted June 19, 2011, at 8:39 p.m.

A staple in salad bars and healthful eating has figured in the latest food illness scare. An outbreak of disease in Germany provided one more scary lesson that eating raw sprouts can sicken or even kill you.

The infection wave so far has killed 31 people, all but one in Germany, and struck 3,000, of whom 759 have suffered severe intestinal illness. German authorities finally traced the bacteria, a virulent strain of E. coli, to a farm in northern Germany. It was the source of sprouts served in a restaurant where 17 people became ill after eating sprouts. Only those who ate sprouts were stricken.

A prompt response from the International Sprout Growers Association reassured consumers that the outbreak was a localized event, not likely to spread outside Germany. It called for continued investigation of the incident. In the meantime, it recommended that consumers “continue to enjoy the great health benefits, variety and taste of sprouts.”

U.S. authorities are more cautious. Tainted sprouts contaminated by toxic forms of E. coli or salmonella have repeatedly spread disease in this country and led to recalling of sprouts. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a special warning after alfalfa sprouts were blamed for clusters of salmonella saintpaul  illness that infected 215 people in 14 states in early 2009. The CDC advised against eating raw alfalfa sprouts until further notice and said that young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems should never eat raw alfalfa sprouts.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current rules advise the same groups plus pregnant women to avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind, including alfalfa, clover, radish and mung bean. Current notices to the industry about processing sprouts are merely recommendations. New regulations, expected to be issued by next January under the new Food Safety Modernization Act, will be requirements enforceable by law. The FDA also plans to issue guidance about specific products on how to avoid health risks.

Some consumers think they can avoid risks by growing their own sprouts from seed. But Michelle A. Smith, an FDA senior policy analyst, cites an expert committee’s estimate that a single bacterium in a kilogram of seed can contaminate a batch of sprouts because of the way they are grown.

Raw sprouts may taste good and can be healthful food. But they are also risky, something that may be improved by the new food safety law.

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