Sprouts & Food Safety

When I think of sprouts, I think of the green, crunchy, squirmy little things on my Pho, on my Banh-Mi, on my sandwiches or in a salad. But, everyime I am about to eat them, I think twice. You may have also noticed that sprouts are rarely available at salad bars and grocery stores. And this is why the article is titled as it is – because of the irony that as delicious and healthy as raw sprouts are, they are also one the leading sources of foodborne illnesses. And, this is by no means a new problem, it has been occurring consistently for almost a decade. How and why? The answer to those questions lies in the way they are grown.

Because sprouts germinate from seeds or beans, contaminated seeds or beans are what cause sprouts to be a food safety risk. And, there are several factors that could cause contamination, including, but not limited to:

  • Irrigation water in the fields
  • Animal Manure
  • Unsanitary hands handling the seeds and beans pre and post harvest
  • Pests
  • Unsanitary transportation conditions

But, where the risk multiplies is with the growing conditions. The germination process for seeds and beans requires warm and moist conditions (Approx. 70F). Several harmful bacteria (Such as Salmonella and E.Coli) grow in the temperature ranges of 40-140F. This is known as the “temperature danger zone” (Defined by US FSIS [United States Food Safety and Inspection Services]) because in this temperature range, bacteria grow and multiply rapidly. So, the growth conditions for sprouts happen to be the optimal condition for bacteria to grow. So, all the places from which bacteria could have contaminated the seeds and beans (internally and externally) would grow extremely well during the germination process. This is a a very common production challenge. And, a lot of effort has been put in by the Federal Food and Drug Administration and other authorities to put into place practices and regulations for growers to follow and ensure safe sprout production. And yet, sprouts continue to remain a leading cause of foodborne illnesses globally.

Why is this important to you? I believe that in general people overlook the safety aspect of consuming sprouts. Contaminated seeds and beans grow into contaminated sprouts with bacteria, that when eaten raw can result in foodborne illnesses. Trust me when I say that it does not take many bacterial cells to make you sick, especially if you belong to a “vulnerable population group” (Elderly, immuno-compromised, young, pregnant etc.)

What does foodborne illness look like in this case? Diarrhea, abdominal cramps, nausea etc. NOT FUN! This can be fatal to the vulnerable population.

Should I buy commercially grown sprouts? Yes and no. I personally am very wary of these and never buy sprouts. But, if you do, it is highly recommended not to consume them raw and instead to cook the sprouts prior to consumption to kill all the bacteria and reduce the risk of foodborne illness. Here are some things to keep in mind when buying commercially grown sprouts:

  • As always, avoid wilted sprouts, and choose crisp and fresher looking ones
  • Make sure that they are refrigerated at the store when you are buying them, and put them in the refrigerator as soon as you are home
  • If pre-packaged, use the sprouts much sooner than the by the “Best Before” (within 1-2 days of purchase)

What is considered “cooking” the sprouts? The idea it to create enough heat to kill bacteria. So, while it is not required to cook the sprouts in boiling water (as that can destroy its palatability), I would suggest that they be cooked until they are steaming well. this ensures that enough heat has penetrated to kill as many bacteria as possible.

What if I grow sprouts at home? There are a a lot of people who grow sprouts at home (including me). But not everyone is aware of the fact that it does not make them any safer, unless appropriate steps are taken to ensure safety.

  • Use seeds and beans are only meant for cooking or sprouting (There are also versions that are meant just for potting)
  • Wash hands properly when handling the seeds
  • Use only clean, potable water (preferably not tap, but filtered drinking water) to clean and irrigate the seeds, beans and sprouts
  • Wash the seeds and bean thoroughly under cold running water
  • Ensure that the sprouting containers are clean
  • Place the growing sprouts in a warm area away from other potential sources of raw foods contamination
  • Once sprouted, keep them refrigerated under 40F and consume as soon as possible (within 1-2 days of sprouting)

Now, let’s address the elephant in the room. Are raw sprouts safe for consumption? For the most part, yes, only if you do not belong to the “vulnerable population group”. If not, it is highly recommended that the sprouts be cooked . In general, when in doubt, cook them.

Sprouts have a plethora of health benefits that I would like to enjoy. As a food safety professional, if I say that I like my sprouts raw, I will get my hand slapped. But, I will still say that I enjoy both raw and cooked sprouts with the caveat that I prefer home grown sprouts than buying commercially grown sprouts or eating them at a restaurant. And this is important to note because I will not just eat sprouts anywhere, and I will not recommend anyone to do so either.

In summary:

  • Avoid commercially grown sprouts available at grocery stores, as much as possible
  • Avoid, to the best of your ability, sprouts in a restaurant setting. Try ordering a meal without the sprouts
  • If you grow sprouts at home, just keep some simple tips in mind to prevent any contamination

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