On the Table

Sprouts can carry danger

STAFF WRITERJune 15, 2011 

They just look so innocent. It's hard to imagine that a sprout could be a killer.

A few bad sprouts, however, have recently reminded us that these fresh, green frillies have the potential to spread illness and worse. E. coli bacteria in fresh sprouts produced in Germany have in the past few weeks killed 31 people and made more than 3,000 others sick.

It's not new. Sprouts have been involved in this sort of mischief many years.

Sprouts are germinated seeds or beans. Sprouted mung beans and alfalfa seeds are the two most common sprouts you see in supermarkets, but there are others, too.

They commonly turn up in restaurants on salad bars, as garnishes on plates and in sandwiches and Asian dishes such as spring rolls and stir-fry.

Rinsing won't help

The problem with sprouts is that since the 1970s they have been linked to dozens of outbreaks of food-borne illness around the world. E. coli and salmonella contamination are the two most common causes.

Unfortunately, rinsing the sprouts before eating them isn't enough protection. That's because the source of the contamination is often the seeds themselves.

They can become contaminated by animal manure in the field or during storage when bacteria enter through tiny cracks in the seeds. The bacteria multiply during sprouting because growing conditions - warm and wet - are perfect for bacterial growth.

At that point, it's very difficult to rinse the bacteria out of the sprouts. On top of that, bacteria can also make it onto fresh sprouts through poor sanitary conditions during processing.

The bacteria could be killed by heat, but most sprouts are eaten raw or only lightly cooked. Even homegrown sprouts are risky if eaten raw.

Don't eat raw sprouts. That's the best advice for all of us. It's especially true for the most vulnerable: young children, older adults and anyone with a weakened immune system.

Anticipate that raw sprouts may be served on burgers, sandwiches and in salads at restaurants. If they're listed on the menu, ask that they be left off your food. If they show up on your plate anyway, remove them before eating your food.

Cut the risk

If you are a healthy adult, and you decide that you can't live without raw sprouts, there are some things you can do to minimize your risk:

Buy only fresh, crisp sprouts that look as though they have been properly refrigerated. Avoid any that are wilted, turning brown or smelly.

Look at the sell-by date on the sprout container, and avoid sprouts that are beyond that freshness date.

Keep your sprouts cool once you get them home. Your refrigerator temperature should be at 40 degrees or cooler.

If you're looking for something green to add to sandwiches and salads at home, stick with mixed, chopped lettuces, watercress or parsley - flat or curly - in lieu of sprouts.

Take the risk of food-borne illness seriously. It's not difficult to take precautions, and it could save your life.

Suzanne Havala Hobbs is a licensed, registered dietitian. Send questions and comments to suzanne@onthetable.net.

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