Sprouts: Culprits in Germany, but on the rise in America

6/15/2011 8:34:27 AM

First it was bean sprouts. Then it wasn’t bean sprouts.

Then it was organic bean sprouts, though there was no microbiological smoking gun to implicate them in the superbug that has killed 30 and sickened almost 3,000 people in Europe during the last two weeks.

So. To sprout or not to sprout?

If sprouts do prove the ultimate culprit in Europe, it will have been because of one particular batch of contaminated seed, with no evidence of anything more, says Donald Schaffner, a professor of food science at Rutgers University.

“I don’t think U.S. consumers need to freak out about sprouts,” adds Robert Brackett, director of the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Sprouts develop from soaking seeds over several days in a controlled environment indoors. Like other produce harvested in fields, the starter seeds for sprouts risk contamination from a range of sources, animal to human. The growing environment that is used — warm water — can also play a role in breeding bad bacteria.

On these shores, sprouts have not been excepted from the growing list of edibles — spinach, tomatoes, peanut butter, hamburger, eggs — that have caused food-borne illness outbreaks during the last several decades. More than 2,500 Americans fell ill from contaminated sprouts between 1990 and 2010, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. But Lola Russell, a spokeswoman for the Centers for Disease Control, notes that the 30 or more outbreaks in the United States since the mid-1990s were drastically less severe than the killer bug in Germany.

Think about it this way, says Phillip Tarr, professor of molecular microbiology at Washington University in St. Louis: Unless a food sold to the public has been irradiated or cooked, “it cannot be considered to be 100 percent microbiologically safe.”

Does that mean you shouldn’t eat fresh fruits or vegetables?

Sprout growers “have worked very hard in the U.S. to manage this problem and keep it in control,” says Schaffner. “By and large, I think they’re doing a fairly good job.”

Natural-foods advocates have long touted the nutritional virtues of sprouts, a generic term for seeds germinated for a short spell. Most sprouts were eaten raw, and consumers looking for variety beyond the dainty alfalfa and meaty mung bean had to sprout at home. But in the past five years, sprout varieties in markets have expanded, and moved beyond the produce aisle.

“Now we have things like pea shoots and sunflower, buckwheat, radish, broccoli and cabbage,” says Steve Meyerowitz, a.k.a. Sproutman, who has sold sprouting seeds since the 1970s. “The kind of person that considers including these foods in their diet has also broadened. It used to be that only health-food nuts would eat sprouts.”

According to the Center for Culinary Development, a product development firm, more than 100 new sprouted foods have entered the retail market since 2006. Sprouted nuts make up snack mixes. Sprouted grains go into granola. Sprouted whole-grain flour becomes pasta and pretzels.Jane Andrews, nutrition and product-labeling manager for Wegmans, says the biggest driver is interest in unprocessed foods. As she puts it, “What’s fresher than something that is sprouted right in front of you?”

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