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Sprouts: Good nutrition, high risk

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You probably haven’t given the topic of sprouts much thought, but when people do, they usually think good nutrition, health food or perhaps a health food restaurant.
Nothing could be further from the truth. The foodborne illness risk associated with sprouts far outweighs its nutritional benefits.
In last week’s column, I talked about the risk some people take when eating undercooked meats, eggs and seafood. Some of the same risks and concerns apply to raw sprouts.
In the past 20 years, there have been at least 55 outbreaks of foodborne illness traced back to sprouts. In fact, sprouts were responsible for more than one-quarter of all produce-related outbreaks; more than those from melons, tomatoes or leafy greens. One of the largest outbreaks was in 2011, when 53 people died and more than 4,000 others became ill from E. coli linked to sprouts in Europe.
The problem is the way sprouts are grown. The seeds need warm, moist and humid growing conditions—exactly the conditions that illness-causing bacteria, such as Salmonella and E. coli, need to thrive. These are the most common illnesses, but a recent recall of sprouts in the Pacific Northwest was due to the risk of Listeria. Illness associated with fresh sprouts can come from contaminated seed, water, soil or poor personal hygiene. Even if there’s just a small amount of bacteria on or inside a seed, those cells can multiply to dangerous levels within hours in the warm moist environment.
Although growers can and are taking steps to reduce the risk from bacteria growing in sprouts, no method can absolutely be safe. Thorough cooking kills the dangerous bacteria, but few people cook raw sprouts. In addition, illnesses have been linked to several types of sprouts, including alfalfa, broccoli, clover, radish and mung beans.
The concern about the safety of raw sprouts has prompted several grocery store chains, including Walmart and Kroger’s to stop selling raw sprouts completely.
The FDA says people most at risk from foodborne illness are children, the elderly, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system.
If you decide to eat raw sprouts, the FDA offers these tips to reduce your risk:
•Buy only sprouts kept at refrigerator temperature. Select crisp-looking sprouts with the buds attached. Avoid musty-smelling, dark or slimy-looking sprouts.
•Refrigerate sprouts at home. Refrigerators should be set to maintain a temperature of 40 degrees or below.
•Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw foods.
•Rinse sprouts thoroughly with water before use. Rinsing can help remove surface dirt. Don’t use soap or other detergents.
Homegrown sprouts aren’t necessarily any safer than purchased sprouts, if the harmful bacteria are present in or on the seed it can grow during sprouting even under the cleanest conditions.
If you are in one of the high-risk categories, when purchasing a salad or sandwich at a restaurant or deli, check to make sure that raw sprouts have not been added.
The decision is yours…but now you know the risk.
Sources: Dr. Benjamin Chapman, Food Safety Specialist, N.C. Cooperative Extension; Chow Line by Linnette Goard and Martha Filipic, Ohio State University Extension; Barfblog.com by Dr. Doug Powell, Kansas State University; and Foodsafety.gov.
Cheryle Syracuse is a Family and Consumer Science staff member and can be reached at NC Cooperative Extension, Brunswick County Center, at 253-2610.