Another day, another food safety warning. Earlier this week it was beef, hummus and walnuts. This time, the culprit is sprouts.
In a press release issued Thursday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advised consumers not to eat Evergreen Produce brand raw clover. The release states that these sprouts are possibly linked to seven confirmed and three probable cases of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli in Idaho and Washington. Fifty percent of the people sickened were hospitalized.
Even people with uncompromised immune systems are strongly cautioned to discard any Evergreen Produce sprouts in sealed containers so no other humans, pets or wild animals can consume them and become infected. Thoroughly cooking sprouts can reduce the chance of foodborne illness, says the FDA, but be careful - since 1996, there have been at least 30 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with different types of raw and, yes, lightly cooked sprouts.
But aren't sprouts supposed to be -- healthy? They're the stuff of health food cafes and virtuous hummus pockets. They're supposed to add beneficial, low-calorie crunch to salads and sandwiches, not cause you to, per the CDC, "develop diarrhea (often bloody) and abdominal cramps" or possibly become severely ill and die.
Unfortunately, according to a 2011 CBC-commissioned study led by Kevin Allen, a microbiology professor at the University of British Columbia, the warm, moist conditions that are conducive to growing bumper crops of sprouts are also an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. In his test of 44 samples of pre-packaged sprouts (as well as 48 of leafy greens and 58 of various 58 herbs), "Over 78% of sprouts had levels of microorganisms too numerous to count. In addition, one sample was contaminated with generic E. coli and nearly all samples had enterococci detected, including E. faecalis and E. faecium."
The report continues, "Although high levels of microorganisms in sprouts were expected, the extensive detection of enterococci and potential significance are not well documented in scientific literature. Enterococcus spp. are inherently resistant to some antibiotics, and are known for their ability to acquire and subsequently disseminate antibiotic resistance genes to other bacteria. As such, the observed high levels of contamination in sprouts (93%), as well as herbs (79%) and spinach (50%), warrants further investigation, and may present an issue in the dissemination of antimicrobial resistance through foodborne means."
So how does that bacteria get there in the first place? Attorney and food safety advocate Bill Marler told Eatocracy that the most likely factors are either from contamination at the seed level as plants grow out in manure-enriched fields and spread contamination across crops, or in the sprouting facilities themselves.
In one case investigated from the end of 2010 through the early months of 2011 after an outbreak that sickened 140 people with Salmonella at Jimmy John's sandwich shop chain, workers at the Tiny Greens Organic Farm in Urbana, Illinois were found to have tracked compost pile runoff from the front of the facility inside to the production area. This was far from the only hygiene violation at the facility and the FDA issued a warning letter informing the public of the danger.
Information, Marler asserts, is indeed the public's best defense against illness. "We've got to a point where we need to give consumers far more warning," he says. "The counterargument to risk is benefit -- and that's where consumers get confused. There's evidence that broccoli sprouts have anti-cancer qualities. There are other cancer preventatives that don't require broccoli sprouts. Yes, raw milk contains pro-biotics, but so does yogurt."
While Marler advocates personal responsibility on the consumer end, saying, "Knowing that some of these foods can cause harm, people must be vigilant about how and where they get them and how they use them," he also believes that producers must keep the public safe and their facilities hygenic.
"Sprouters need to be held accountable for not using science that they know works, to protect consumers," he says, referring to chemical sprays that have been used effectively to decontaminate seeds and stop the spread of harmful bacteria.
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