Public Health

Alfalfa Sprouts Fingered As Culprit In Latest Salmonella Outbreak

alfalfa sprouts

They may be chock full of nutrients, but sprouts have a long history of bacterial contamination, too. iStockphoto.com hide caption

itoggle caption iStockphoto.com

Another season, another sprout recall.

The Food and Drug Administration said today that Caldwell Fresh Foods of California is recalling packages of alfalfa sprouts that have reportedly made up to 22 people sick in 10 states.

The government says there have been at least 30 outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with different kinds of sprouts since 1996, including a pretty major one last year that caused hundreds of salmonella illnesses.

So how do these vitamin-packed salad toppers that are supposed to be good for us become so frequently contaminated? It's all in how they grow.

"Unlike other fresh produce, seeds and beans need warm and humid conditions to sprout and grow. These conditions are also ideal for the growth of bacteria, including Salmonella, Listeria, and E. coli," according to the government's food safety website.

The FDA's been telling people not eat raw sprouts for years, particularly children, the elderly, and pregnant women, who are most at risk of foodborne illness.

Despite well-documented knowledge of the problems with sprouts, the last time the FDA took major action was over a decade ago. In 1999, it issued guidelines urging companies who grow sprouts to adopt higher sanitary standards and regular contamination testing. The guidelines are voluntary.

The Obama administration says it's serious about beefing up food safety, and the Senate has been sitting on a bill designed to boost the agency's authority in this area. Now that the Wall Street reform bill is done, this latest round with salmonella in sprouts might move policymakers.

E-mails to Caldwell Fresh Foods weren't immediately returned.

UPDATE: International Sprout Growers Association President Bob Sanderson told Shots the industry is developing sprout-specific inspection guidance to help auditors evaluate sampling and testing programs, and would welcome more government input.

But he's worried about the industry's future.

"We have a wonderful product that has really unique nutritional properties, if we can work through the problems," he said.

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