Melissa Kaplan's
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Last updated January 1, 2014

Are Raw Sprouts Safe To Eat?

From Ask The Mayo Dietitian, 2000


Question. I've heard that there is controversy over the safety of eating sprouts (alfalfa in particular). Is there much danger for food poisoning? I know that many seeds increase their nutritional value significantly when you sprout them. Am I safe if I sprout my own?

Answer. Sprouts are the germinating forms of seeds and beans. Varieties include alfalfa (the kind seen at most sandwich and salad bars), bean (including mung, kidney, pinto, navy and soy), clover, broccoli, dill, mustard, pumpkin and radish. They are used in a variety of dishes, soups, salads, sandwiches and stir-frys.

In 1998, outbreaks of foodborne illnesses linked to sprouts led the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to advise people that there are risks associated with eating raw sprouts. At that time, the FDA said that children, older people and those with weakened immune systems should avoid eating raw sprouts because of the potential risk of developing serious illness.

A year later, due to increasing numbers of illnesses linked to sprouts, the FDA expanded its warning to advise against anyone eating raw sprouts. That advisory still is in effect. (Sprouts that are fully cooked do not seem to cause problems).

The reported illnesses most frequently were linked to (but not limited to) alfalfa sprouts contaminated by Escherichia coli (E. coli) bacteria (including the most dangerous strain E. coli O157:H7) and Salmonella. E. coli and Salmonella poisoning can cause fever, stomach cramps, diarrhea and may require hospitalization. E. coli O157:H7 damages cells in the intestine and results in blood loss. It can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome, kidney failure in children, and death. It is believed that seeds become contaminated by animals in the fields, or from use of animal manure.

In 1999, the FDA convened a national advisory committee that investigated sprouting practices. Among the committee's findings:

  • Seeds and beans themselves — not their sprouts — are most likely to be the source for most outbreaks. If bacteria are present in the seed or bean, they can grow to dangerous levels during sprouting — even under sanitary conditions. (Sprouting your own at home does not decrease risk).
  • Seeds and beans used for sprouting should be handled differently than seeds and beans meant for crops. This includes developing ways for cleaning (disinfecting) seeds and beans, as well as safer handling, storage and sprouting practices.
  • Once sprouted, there is need to establish safety along all steps of the processing and handling, from packaging to sales. And, once purchased, consumers should keep sprouts refrigerated and clean until eaten.

Fortunately, the sprout industry has been working with the FDA and agricultural scientists to improve seed safety, and testing for contamination. In addition, efforts are underway to identify methods to decontaminate seeds, beans and their sprouts. The FDA also has increased surveillance of sprouting facilities to advise and enhance safe production practices.

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