FDA held a call Saturday, April 25 to inform industry (but not consumers) of a forthcoming FDA press release (today or tomorrow?) related to an outbreak of Salmonella SaintPaul linked to alfalfa sprouts – AGAIN. The multi-state outbreak began mid-March and is ongoing. Currently 31 cases in Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah and West Virginia are linked to this outbreak. The serotype and PFGE pattern are considered to be rare, and the PFGE pattern is a match to that of the strain causing illnesses from sprouts in Nebraska in February/March that was linked to CW Sprouts and Jimmy Johns. The outbreak involves multiple sprouters in multiple states and multiple lots of seeds that went to at least 20 states. Some seeds went to primary sprouters and others to distributors; FDA does not have all the data on where these distributors send seeds, so other states may be involved. It appears that a single seed supplier is involved. Many of the cases are linked to restaurants.

FDA will be warning consumers (when?) not to eat raw alfalfa sprouts, reminding the sprouting industry of the importance of following FDA’s guidance on sprouts safety, and reminding restaurants/retailers to obtain sprouts from sprouters following the guidance. As part of this investigation FDA will be reviewing how closely sprouters are complying with the FDA guidance to assess whether changes in the guidance are needed. Information to date suggests a number of sprouters have not been following the recommended control measures.

FDA’s Guidance Document for the safe production of sprouts gives clear direction to seed producers, seed conditioners, distributors, and sprout producers on important steps that must be taken to ensure the safety of sprouts.

In 2003, FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the California Department of Health Services and others jointly developed a video to assist the industry in producing the safest possible products. The video may also be useful for retailers, regulators, and anyone working with the industry that wants to better understand the product and current recommendations for best production practices.

Both of these resources provide guidance regarding the sources of contamination, ways to eliminate potential contamination and methods to detect contamination when it happens. FDA believes strongly in these recommendations and “will consider enforcement actions against any party who does not have effective preventive controls in place, in particular, microbial testing.”

Some of the basic controls directed by FDA include:

§ Seeds for sprout production must be grown under good agricultural practices. Purchasers of seed should request verification from their supplier that appropriate practices were followed.

§ Seeds for sprouting should be treated with one or more treatments (such as 20,000 ppm calcium hypochlorite) that have been approved for reduction of pathogens in seeds or sprouts. Some treatments can be applied at the sprouting facility while others will have to be applied earlier in the seed production process. However, at least one approved antimicrobial treatment should be applied immediately before sprouting.

§ Microbiological testing of spent irrigation water from each production lot for Salmonella, E. coli O157:H7 (or EHEC), and Listeria monocytogenes. There is a potential that pathogens may survive antimicrobial treatments, even if used properly, so testing becomes the last chance to detect contaminated lots. Because testing for pathogens can be done with irrigation water as early as 48 hours into what is generally a 3 to 10 day growing period, producers who plan accordingly can obtain test results before shipping product without losing product shelf-life. Testing, whether done by the producer or contracted out, should be done by trained personnel, in a qualified laboratory, using validated methods.