Sprouts: What you should know for your safety

Think safety when eating sprouts.

A bowl of sprouts.
Photo: Pixabay.

Diarrhea, vomiting, fever, upset stomach, dehydration and possible death are the hallmarks of severe foodborne illness. Don’t let your next sprout-topped salad or sandwich put you in such dire straits.

Any produce that is eaten raw or only lightly cooked carries with it a risk of foodborne illness. Sprouts are especially vulnerable because they need warmth and humidity to sprout. Oregon State University reports that the ideal temperature for sprouting is between 70 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit, which unfortunately is exactly what bacteria like Salmonella and E. coli need to grow. The Food Safety and Inspection Service identifies the temperature danger zone as the temperature range between 40 and 140 F. Narrowing the range further, the National Restaurant Association states that the most dangerous range in the temperature danger zone are temperatures between 70 and 125 F. It’s no wonder that sometimes food poisonings can occur!

Let’s take a closer look. 

Bacteria require certain conditions to thrive and grow, we call those conditions the acronym FAT TOM, short for food, acidity, time, temperature, oxygen and moisture conditions.  

There have been many instances of sprouts causing outbreaks of food poisoning throughout the recent past. According to the United States Food and Drug Administration, “between 1996 and July 2016 in the United States, there were a total of approximately 46 reported outbreaks associated with sprouts, accounting for 2474 illnesses, 187 hospitalizations and three deaths.” Since the companies selling sprouts cannot guarantee that all harmful bacteria will be eliminated, even on seeds that have been treated for bacteria, it may be best to stay away from raw sprouts. Additionally, because the bacteria are present on the seed, homegrown sprouts are no safer than those coming from the store.

These scary statistics don’t mean you have to avoid sprouts entirely; rather, to reduce the risk of illness from sprouts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that:

  • Consumers cook sprouts thoroughly; cooking kills the bacteria making it possible to enjoy cooked dishes.
  • People with weakened immune systems, such as the elderly, children and pregnant women, should avoid eating all kinds of sprouts.
  • If you are at a restaurant, ask that raw sprouts not be added to your salad or sandwich. If they are added, return it, and ask for a fresh salad without sprouts.

We all have the power to stay healthy. The more we know about food safety, the healthier we can be. To learn more about food safety, visit MSU Extension's Safe Food and Water website. 

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