As I picked the sprouts off my sandwich today, I asked the waiter if she had ever heard about sprout related outbreaks – especially this last Summer’s outbreak in Germany, that left 50 dead, nearly 1,000 with acute kidney failure and another 3,000 sickened. Clearly annoyed, she said “no.”

The CDC says that 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.

Perhaps it really is time for a warning label of more risky foods, like the on below. What other foods or drinks would qualify?

sprouts warn.jpg

Sprout Outbreaks*

Year Type Pathogen Cases

1990 Alfalfa S. Anatum 15

1995 Alfalfa S. Stanley 128

1995 Alfalfa S. Newport 133

1995 Alfalfa S. Newport 69

1996 Alfalfa S. Stanley 30

1996 Alfalfa S. Montevideo 650

1996 Radish E. coli O157:H7 12,680

1997 Alfalfa S. Infantis 109

1997 Alfalfa E. coli O157:H7 108

1997 Alfalfa S. Senftenberg 60

1997 Alfalfa S. Meleagridis 78

1998 Alfalfa S. Havana 40

1998 Alfalfa E. coli O157:NM 8

1999 Alfalfa S. Mbandaka 83

1999 Alfalfa S. Typhimurium 119

1999 Alfalfa S. Muenchen 61

1999 Alfalfa S. paratyphi B 51

1999 Alfalfa Salmonella spp. 34

1999 Alfalfa S. Muenchen 38

1999 Clover S. Saintpaul 36

2000 Mung S. Enteritidis 75

2000 Mung S. Enteritidis 12

2001 Alfalfa S. Kottbus 32

2001 Alfalfa Salmonella spp. 22

2001 Mung S. Enteritidis 84

2002 Alfalfa E. coli O157:H7 7

2003 Alfalfa S. Saintpaul 9

2003 Alfalfa S. Chester 26

2003 Alfalfa E. coli O157:H7 7

2003 Alfalfa S. Saintpaul 16

2003 Alfalfa E. coli O157:NM 13

2004 Alfalfa Salmonella spp. 12

2005 Alfalfa E. coli O157:H7 1

2005 Mung Salmonella spp. 648

2006 Bean S. Braenderup 4

2008 Alfalfa S. Typhimurium 13

2009 Alfalfa S. Saintpaul 6

2009 Alfalfa S. Saintpaul 235

2010 Alfalfa S. Newport 43

2010 Alfalfa S. I 4,[5],12:i:- 125

2011 Clover S. Newport 7

2011 Fenugreek E. coli O104:H4 4,321

2011 Alfalfa S. enteritidis 21

*Thanks to the CDC, Dr. Ben Chapman and Oregon DOH (the numbers include deaths)

  • Gabrielle Meunier

    From my experience, also, people have no idea of the risk of eating sprouts. What’s taking the FDA so long to act upon this label idea?

  • Mary McGonigle-Martin

    This warning label would look beautiful on the front of a bottle filled with raw milk.

  • Mary

    Can you provide the citation for the original CDC article? Thank you.

  • Here ya go:

  • doc raymond

    Oh Oh Mr. Bill. What is to say the rest of the sandwich was not already cross-contaminated by the sprouts? And after handling them, did you wash your hands or just pick up the sandwich?
    If you cannot answer the questions in the affirmative, I suggest an extra martini to kill the possible bugs in the belly.

  • Javaguy

    For the past several years, if I receive an item at a restaurant with sprouts (always undeclared, because I wouldn’t touch it with a gloved hand) I politely refuse the item and order something else. Praying they don’t use the same plate or prep area. I’m surprised you’d scrape it off and eat it.

    5 live cells is all it takes…

  • Raghu

    Coming from India, where hygienic practices are not religiously followed, I was stunned when I first heard about the salmonella outbreak in Germany.

    I guess the only antidote to such fears (or paranoia ?) is to live like the Indians – not bother too much. I have traveled to several countries (usually staying for a few months at time), eaten at many roadside eateries and managed to travel back home without falling sick. Call it genetics if you will, but I feel it has more to do with being carefully careless over several years.