To Your Health

Several years ago I stopped eating alfalfa sprouts when there were reports of bacterial contamination. Are there safe sprouts on the market now?

Q. Several years ago I stopped eating alfalfa sprouts when there were reports of bacterial contamination. Are there safe sprouts on the market now?

A. In the late 1990s the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began to receive a disturbing number of reports of infection by one of the more infamous pathogens, E. coli 0157. Although outbreaks in the U.S. typically involved fewer than 100 people, in 1996 in Japan, radish sprouts were associated with an outbreak of approximately 6,000 cases of E. coli O157 infection. Sprouts of all sorts apparently can become contaminated even if properly prepared and may not be suitable for everyone. The CDC and the Food and Drug Administration advise persons with compromised immune systems and others at high risk of infection, including children and the elderly, not to eat raw sprouts. An E. coli O157 infection can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome with resultant kidney failure in susceptible victims, although otherwise healthy persons experience only diarrhea, nausea, abdominal cramping, or fever for several days.

There is currently no reliable way to identify the E. coli 0157 organism in either seeds or sprouts and thus no way for sprouters to recognize and prevent this type of contamination from occurring. Complete decontamination of seeds or sprouts is a difficult chore since bacteria can hide away in tiny cracks and survive processing. The FDA can only recommend irradiation of raw sprouts, unacceptable to most health-conscious people, or that you cook sprouts before eating them, a process that negates the reason most people want to eat sprouts.

The recent E. coli O157 infections were probably caused by contaminated alfalfa seeds, rather than contamination during the sprouting process, because the outbreaks in several states were traced back to a single seed lot, and inspection of the sprouting facilities did not identify unsanitary sprouting practices. Studies of alfalfa seeds inoculated with small amounts of pathogens suggest that sprouting may increase the number of organisms present up to 10,000-fold. The warm, moist conditions necessary for sprouting are also the ideal conditions for E. coli O157 to multiply. Furthermore, the nutrients that make sprouts healthy for us also feed the pathogenic organisms if they are present. Sprouting can be done simply and easily at home with very inexpensive equipment, but carries the same risks at home as in the commercial sprouting operations.

However, there may be a simple solution. If you want to continue buying sprouts, just soak your sprouts in a bowl filled with 3% (the usual strength) hydrogen peroxide for 20 minutes, drain off the hydrogen peroxide, rinse the sprouts in boiled then cooled water, and refrigerate for 30 minutes before serving. They will come out nice and crisp and free of pathogens. You will still need to check for raw sprouts used on sandwiches and salads purchased at restaurants and delicatessens. If you need to reduce your risk of illness, you can specifically request that raw sprouts not be used.

If you are a reasonably healthy adult, the nutritional benefits of eating sprouts far outweigh the small risk of infection. Despite all the efforts to make raw sprouts safe, if you are susceptible to infection it is best not to eat sprouts raw.

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