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May 23, 2014 at 2:27 PM

Are raw sprouts safe to eat?

File photo by Gero Breloer/Associated Press

File photo by Gero Breloer/Associated Press

Raw clover sprouts eaten at Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches in King County (and other establishments) have been linked to an e. coli outbreak, the Washington State Health Department announced earlier this week. If the news sounded familiar, well, it was.

More than two years ago we wrote about the conundrum of raw sprouts, considered a quintessential health food — and also a problematic enough health safety risk that many establishments won’t sell them. Kroger, the nation’s largest supermarket chain, stopped carrying sprouts in 2012 due to their “potential food-safety risk.” Wal-Mart quietly pulled them in 2010, as did local chain co-op PCC in 2011, among others. Food safety expert Doug Powell once described them to me as “hazardous” and said they’re one of the few foods he won’t eat himself.

The health department noted that “In most sprout outbreaks, the restaurant is not the source of the contamination, which usually happens when the seeds are grown or harvested and is often impossible to wash off. It’s important to store sprouts in a refrigerator to inhibit bacterial growth. Thorough cooking will kill the bacteria.” Homegrown sprouts aren’t necessarily any safer. In the latest outbreak, the health department reported that “The sprouts under investigation are linked to seven confirmed and three probable cases of E. coli O121 illnesses in Washington and Idaho. Five of those patients were hospitalized; there have been no deaths.”

What to do now? The health department advised tossing any sprouts from Evergreen Fresh Sprouts in Idaho, which had been distributed to grocery stores as well as various restaurants, but added that “the source of the sprout seed hasn’t yet been determined and remains under investigation.” The producer told the Spokesman-Review newspaper that he thought the health department was jumping the gun to name his farm as the outbreak source, that the company had delivered nearly 40,000 pounds of clover sprouts on the dates in question and “If we had a problem with our sprouts, it would be more than 10 people” reporting illness. (Hard to say — outbreaks are notoriously underreported.)

Various types of sprouts at Jimmy John’s had been linked to earlier outbreaks (here’s a compilation from Seattle food-safety lawyer Bill Marler). The chain had actually dropped the sprouts as an option, but announced in February that sprouts were coming back, adding “Caution: Eat at your own risk. I missed em too.” That Twitter announcement drew a pile of all-positive raves such as “Dear God thank you” and “FINALLY!!!!!!!!!! Thanks for letting us decide if we risk it or not :)”

Does the latest news change your own assessment of whether to take the risk?

Comments | Topics: Doug Powell, e. coli, Jimmy John's

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