How do you keep contaminated food from reaching consumers? The Food and Drug Administration recently set out on a project to test fresh foods that are often the subject of recalls, hoping to learn how common bacterial contamination is and how to prevent these foods from making people sick. This week, it released its report on sprouts, a fresh salad topping that makes people sick surprisingly often.
Literally, killer sprouts
If the FDA could prevent illnesses from sprouts, it would save a lot of suffering. In its report from the 2014-2016 sampling project [PDF], the FDA explains that in the last two decades, from 1996 to 2006, outbreaks of foodborne illness linked to sprouts have caused 2,474 illnesses, 187 hospitalizations, and three deaths, the agency says in the report that it produced from its sampling project from 2014 to 2016. .
The number of people who really become sick in an outbreak is typically much higher, but most people don’t visit a doctor during their illness to have stool or blood samples taken so they can officially be counted as part of a given outbreak.
Sprouts are especially likely to spread illness because they’re grown in warm water where bacteria thrives, and are typically eaten raw without a “kill step” before they reach homes or restaurants. They also typically don’t have a kill step before being eaten, either, typically being served on a salad or a sandwich without being cooked.
Sampling the sprouts
The agency began a program of random sampling, ultimately collecting and testing samples of seeds, the water used for sprouting, and finished sprouts. It found that the rate of contamination in finished sprouts differed from that of the seeds before they were placed in drums of warm water to sprout.
While 2.35% of seeds were contaminated with Salmonella, only .21% of finished sprouts had the pathogen.
Listeria also turned up in samples, but it was found in more finished product than in seeds, with the bacteria turning up in .59% of seeds, but 1.28% of finished sprouts.
No samples tested positive for E. coli because of limitations of the test method.
What did they learn?
The FDA concluded that it doesn’t need to routinely test sprouts across the country, since growers are implementing guidelines from the agency about how to grow sprouts safely, and performing their own tests.
It may, however, keep up monitoring and sampling operations for facilities that have experienced outbreaks. One unnamed sprouting facility in the Midwest was linked to a large 2014 outbreak, and is now rented to a different company. The FDA performs occasional environmental sampling.
If you’re concerned about illness, or making a salad for a person who is young, old, or has a compromised immune system, maybe skip the sprouts. When you do eat sprouts, maybe consider using them only in a stir-fry, or be sure to wash them thoroughly before use.