Time for a Warning?

Three people in Vermont and four people in New Hampshire have been sickened by Salmonella believed to be associated with bean sprouts, health officials in the two states said Friday.

According to the Vermont Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control reported Friday (not yet on its website) that 63 people in 10 states have become ill as part of the outbreak. Eleven people were hospitalized and none have died. Health officials in Vermont said three of the cases were in Vermont, and New Hampshire said it has four associated cases.

The CDC said a review of records and invoices at restaurants in the northeast where people became ill shows they ate bean sprouts from Wonton Food, Inc. of Brooklyn, New York.

“The investigation by state and federal partners is still underway, but consumers should avoid eating bean sprouts grown and sold by Wonton Food, Inc.,” the Vermont Department of Health said. “Restaurants and grocery stores have been advised not to serve or sell bean sprouts from this firm.”

Earlier the Massachusetts Department of Public Health announced that it was investigating a possible Salmonella cluster in Massachusetts and across state lines.

Infection with Salmonella typically causes diarrhea, vomiting, fever and abdominal cramps. Illness can be severe and require hospitalization. Young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are more likely to develop severe illness. It can be fatal without prompt treatment.

My friends at Barf Blog document at least 55 sprout-associated outbreaks occurring worldwide affecting a total of 15,233 people since 1988.

As far back as September 1998, FDA issued a warning against sprouts urging:

Children, pregnant women and the elderly should not eat alfalfa sprouts until growers find a way to reduce the risk of a potentially deadly bacteria that infects some sprouts, the Food and Drug Administration said this week. The FDA, which is investigating sprout industry practices, said children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems should avoid eating sprouts.

Here is the CDC warning :

Sprouts Not Healthy Food for Everyone

Children, the elderly, and persons whose immune systems are not functioning well should not eat raw sprouts, because current treatments of seeds and sprouts cannot get rid of all bacteria present.

Persons who are at high risk for complications from foodborne illness should probably not eat raw sprouts, according to an article in the current issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, CDC’s peer-reviewed journal, which tracks new and reemerging infectious diseases worldwide.

Although sprouts are often considered a “health food,” the warm, humid conditions needed for growing sprouts from seeds are also ideal for bacteria to flourish. Salmonella, E. coli, and other bacteria can grow to high levels without affecting the appearance of the sprouts.

Researchers have treated both seeds and sprouts with heat or washed them in solutions of chlorine, alcohol, and other chemicals. Some of these disinfectants reduced the levels of bacteria, but a potential hazard remained, especially for persons with weak immune systems. High temperatures that would kill the bacteria on the seeds would also keep them from sprouting. Until an effective way is found to prevent illness from sprouts, they should be eaten with caution, if at all.