Are raw sprouts safe? For growers: Part Two

How to over come the difficulties in growing sprouts.

In 2011, an outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis was linked to alfalfa sprouts and spicy sprouts in the United States. This was right after an outbreak of European E. coli O104 in Germany which sickened thousands and was linked to 50 deaths. Recalls of sprouts as a result of Listeria created yet more concern in the United States. Each of these outbreaks was linked to a different harmful bacteria that are feared in foodborne illnesses.  Since that time, many restaurants have taken sprouts off their menu including the sandwich chain Jimmy John’s.  Sprouts still appear at some farmers markets and are desired for adding flavor to salads, juices or entrees both by professional chefs and home cooks.

What causes sprouts to be dangerous? How can sprouts be safely grown? 

Bacteria that cause foodborne illness can lurk anywhere that there is a host for them to thrive. In sprouts, the seed can and does carry the foodborne illness pathogen. Seed has both been documented to carry foodborne illness from the field of origin as well as becoming infected through rodent contact. Foods that need special attention to avoid consumers getting sick  are categorized as “potentially hazardous foods” or PHFs. Raw sprouts are listed among other foods that are categorized as PHFs, as are meats, cheeses, cut melons, cut tomatoes and cut leafy greens. The University of California at Davis advises that “The best conditions for sprouting are also ideal for multiplication of pathogenic bacteria if they happen to be present on the seed.” So seeds are sprouting in the ideal conditions for bacteria to grow and sprouts are a documented host for many different bacteria that cause foodborne illness. 

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued an official guidance in 1999 on the topic of sprouts because of the potential harm of sprouts: “All parties involved in the production of sprouts – seed producers, seed conditioners, and distributors, and sprout producers -- should be aware that seeds and sprouted seeds have been recognized as an important cause of foodborne illness” and recommended that to reduce the risks of raw sprouts. The guidance recommends that seeds be produced using Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) and that seeds are “conditioned, stored, and transported in a manner that minimizes the likelihood that the seeds will be contaminated with pathogens.” (FDA, 1999) For the potential grower, check to make sure that the company you source seeds from is following these guidelines and has a food safety plan and that it is part of your own farm’s food safety plan. 

Growers of sprouts should be aware of the regulations governing food production and sprout production specifically, and work to reduce contamination by having a HACCP plan and using “good sanitation practices as a standard operating procedure to maintain control throughout all stages of sprout production.” Good sanitation means that storage facilities are routinely monitored for rodent activity and rodent urine on all seed bags, seed batches are routinely tested for incidence of Salmonella and E. coli prior to sprouting,  the seed has been sanitized prior to sprouting, spent water has been tested to ensure zero Salmonella species and E. coli, health and hygiene controls are in place for workers at all stages and dedicated tools are in place for safely harvesting sprouts that are sanitized between uses and the temperature of sprouts after harvest is dropped as quickly as possible to 34 degrees and maintained until delivery to the end user .  

The International Sprout Growers Association (ISGA) represents growers of sprouts and is working with regulatory agencies including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to address food safety concerns.  The group has created third-party audits specifically for sprout growers. The Sprout Safety Alliance has generated a set of best practices for safe production of sprouts. Their recommendations begin with creating a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point or HACCP Plan for your operation which addresses seed receiving, seed disinfection, testing spent irrigation water for bacteria before sprouts are harvested, and storage and distribution at the proper refrigeration temperature. 

Safe food and water is a concern for all people and Michigan State University Extension has resources to help. From growing to marketing to consuming food, MSU Extension experts can answer food safety questions. 

Other articles in this series:

Are raw sprouts safe?  For consumers : Part One

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