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February 13, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Looking for sprouts? You might have to look hard, and think twice

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Attention, Walmart shoppers! Are you looking for sprouts?

You need to look elsewhere. Walmart U.S. quietly stopped selling them in October of 2010.

“This decision was made because of our commitment to our customers’ safety as well as our knowing of the inherent microbial risks associated with sprouts,” said spokeswoman Dianna Gee. “Over the past year, we have been working with sprout growers within the industry to research enhanced food safety controls and microbial intervention strategies that would result in safer sprouts, before re-introducing them for sale in our stores and clubs.”

Don’t look to Macpherson’s Produce on Beacon Hill either, which pulled the health food after an e. coli outbreak linked to sprouts sickened thousands and killed 53 people in Europe and a salmonella outbreak linked to Northwest sprouts sickened 21 people last summer, including some in our state. PCC Natural Markets dropped them last year as well. And the crunchy garnish is slipping off the menu at other outlets nationwide, says NPR.

I’ve had sprouts on my list of produce to watch for a while, but heck — cantaloupe and lettuce are on that long list too, and I haven’t seen them yanked from the shelves. So after coming across the Macpherson’s decision the other day, I checked in with one of my favorite food-safety sources, Professor Doug Powell of Kansas State University, who brings blunt talk and scientific rigor to outbreaks and scares. He mentioned to me that sprouts were no longer available at Walmart, the first I’d heard of that move — and noted that plenty of others have taken that route. They’re one of the few foods he won’t touch himself.

“They are a hazardous food, and a lot of food service companies stopped serving them years ago…” Powell said.

“The industry is working on it, and my hat goes off to them, but…any industry is only as good as its worst producer.”

So. How to decide if you want to eat them yourself, and how to do it safely?

As Dr. Raj Mody, an epidemiologist for the Centers for Disease Control, puts it in an online article, some people think of sprouts as the ultimate healthy food. But Mody also calls them “a perfect vehicle for pathogens,” and suggests cooking them if you’re going to eat them at all.

The big problem. The seeds themselves can be contaminated, and they’re sprouted in a wet, warm medium that’s perfect for spreading contamination no matter where it originated.

Seattleite Bill Marler, one of the country’s top food safety lawyers, remembers growing sprouts in his own kitchen in college when a “hippie chick girlfriend” introduced him to their nutritional benefits. “Sprouts were organic culture before people were talking about organic culture,” he said.

Some outbreaks occur because of problems in the sprouting process, Marler said, but “for the most part, most outbreaks are likely linked to the seeds that are contaminated.” That means they’re a risk whether you’re sprouting them at home or buying them in the store, he said.

He’s struck by the official government warnings, which make him equate sprouts with raw milk, carrying the rare CDC caution that “if you’re young, you’re old, or you’re pregnant, don’t consume this stuff,” Marler said.

“I think that speaks volumes of the potential risk.”

His personal thoughts: “I think if you’re a 20, 21-year-old college kid sprouting your own sprouts in your own kitchen you’re probably going to be OK. But if you’re a pregnant woman, you’re over 65, or you’re a kid, it’s probably not a good idea to eat sprouts, period.” He’d also like to see a warning label on them. (Powell is less sanguine about the benefits of a label, noting that we’ve had warning labels of sorts on meat for years.)

Sometimes when we write about food safety, producers of the affected products can come off as extremely defensive, sure that their food cannot be at fault. But talking with Bob Sanderson, president of the International Sprout Growers Association, I found a guy who is both proud of what he grows and very concerned about finding ways to make sure it’s safe industry-wide. The association started as a way to promote the nutritional value of sprouts, he said, but food safety has become more of its focus.

“(The sprout) has never been a big item in the produce world, and it’s always had a very dedicated customer base. But there have been a number of outbreaks, and they’ve caused a lot of concern. The best way to try to rebuld confidence in the product is to standardize the best practices for minimizing that kind of situation,” he said.

The association is working with the FDA and, in particular, with the Institute for Food Safety and Health, figuring out the best practices to follow. A current project is designing an audit for sprout production, looking at all the most critical areas. Some of the bigger companies are doing their own research as well, he noted. (Here’s an interesting article on some solutions being considered).

For sprouts to return to Walmart, for instance, Sanderson said the rigorous list of requirements growers are working on includes items such as having the growers show documentation on their seed sourcing and sanitizing, showing that they have tested their spent irrigation water, undergoing this “extremely detailed third-party audit…it covers absolutely everything”, and being able to trace any problem sources.

“A lot of these things the industry for the most part is already doing,” he said. There are not a lot of seed suppliers, but “the main ones are certainly doing a lot of testing and they won’t accept a seed lot if anything comes up in their tests,” he said. That said, it’s not a complete guarantee, and they would like to see better sanitizing treatments for seeds than the chlorine-based one the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommended years back. Testing the spent irrigation water is is something that he thinks almost all the commercial growers are doing. “It’s been designed so you’ll get the results back before the product goes out the door,” he said.

Sanderson, based in Massachusetts, started growing sprouts more than 35 years ago, out of “curiosity and the sense of a new thing.” He and a cousin and the woman who became his wife put the business together just at the point where mainstream markets were getting more interested in health foods. Now their Jonathan Sprouts supplies most of the New England markets.

In his own company, “we do very careful testing of every crop. We get the results back before we let anything out the door,” he said. And they’re working with researchers to come up with more effective treatments. “It’s a difficult process, but we’re just continuing to work at it,” he said.

“Sprouts are probably one of the most nutritious foods that can be grown fresh anywhere 12 months out of the year and we are all working very hard to make sure that they can be eaten with full confidence in their safety, and we’ll continue to do that.”

What do you think? Eat sprouts now, eat them only after cooking them, or wait for more of an all-clear? Here’s a list from Prof. Powell’s site of recent outbreaks and the types of sprouts associated with them.

Photo: Gero Breloer/Associated Press

Edited 2/14 to add a table of outbreaks and the news that PCC also no longer carries sprouts.

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