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Houston Department of Health and Human Services > Food Inspection and Safety (Consumer Health) > Food Safety Tips > Sprouts - Sprouting Questions

Sprouts - Sprouting Questions

Sprouts those crunchy and healthy newborn plants that first appeared in the sixties have become a standard item in salad bars and produce departments across the country. An increasing frequency of sprout-related food borne illness has accompanied their increasing presence in supermarkets and restaurants.

Sprouts are germinating form of seeds and beans and are easy to produce. They require no soil, only water and cool temperature. They emerge in 2 7 days, depending on the type of seed or bean. In addition to raw alfalfa sprouts, other varieties include clover, sunflower, broccoli, mustard, radish, garlic, dill and pumpkin, as well as various beans, such as mung, kidney, pinto, navy and soy and wheat berries. While versatile, sprouts also are favored for their nutritional value. Like other fresh produce, sprouts are low in calories and fat and provide substantial amounts of key nutrients, such as vitamin C, foliate and fiber.

The most common kind, alfalfa sprouts, has been linked to a number of food borne illness outbreaks worldwide. Since 1995, health officials have attributed 13 food borne illness outbreaks to sprouts. Ten of these outbreaks occurred in the United States, resulting in illnesses in approximately 1,000 Americans and at least 1 death. The largest outbreak occurred in Japan in 1996; 9,000 people were sickened and 17 died after eating radish sprouts contaminated with E. Coli 0157:H7. Most of the outbreaks have involved sprouts contaminated with either E. Coli 0157:H7 or Salmonella.

It is believed that the seeds from which sprouts are derived are often the source of contamination. The seeds may become contaminated by animals in the field or during post-harvest storage. Mishandling of sprouts during production, packing or distribution has not been implicated as the source of sprout contamination. However, bacteria already present in the sprouting seed can continue to thrive in conditions in which poor food handling techniques are practiced, for example, lack of proper refrigeration, infected food handlers and dirty/unsanitary sprouting facilities.

Following the three 1998 outbreaks involving raw alfalfa sprouts, the Food and Drug Administration reaffirmed a warning that had been issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1997. It urges people at high risk, children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems to avoid raw alfalfa sprouts until safe methods are identified and put in place. High on the list of possible strategies was decontamination of sprout seeds by chemical treatment with calcium hypochlorite, irradiation, heat treatment as in pasteurization process, Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points program for sprout growers, good agricultural and manufacturing practices. Another option might be to include a list of safe handling practices or a mandatory warning labels on sprout packages.

How to buy and eat sprouts safely:

  • If you belong to a high risk group, avoid raw sprouts.
  • Buy only sprouts kept at refrigerated temperature, select crisp sprouts with the buds attached. Avoid musty-smelling, slimy sprouts.
  • Refrigerate sprouts at home, no higher that 40°F.
  • Wash hands with soap and warm water before and after handling any raw foods.
  • Rinse sprouts thoroughly with water before use.

Please call the Bureau of Consumer Health Services, at 713/794.9200 for more information about this, or any other food-safety related topic.

Please call the Bureau of Consumer Health Services at 713-794-9200 for more information on any other food-safety related topic.

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