In a recent CanWest News story, Joe Schwarcz asks “what are you more worried about eating, beef from a hamburger joint or a sandwich made with alfalfa sprouts at your local health food emporium?”
Scientifically, this is a “no contest.” I know what you’re thinking. Eat beef and risk mad cow disease. Or, eat beef and risk E. coli 0157:H7. After all, didn’t 120 or so people die in England from mad cow disease? And what about the four children who died from eating tainted hamburgers in the famous “Jack In The Box” episode in 1993? Yes, both of these are awful numbers. But the chance of any individual being affected is extremely low. In England, two million infected cows ended up in the food stream and that resulted in about 10 deaths a year. In Canada we are talking about one cow that never ended up in the food system. As far as the Jack In The Box episode goes, the meat wasn’t properly cooked. That’s it. Cooking hamburger to an internal temperature of about 70 degrees Celsius eliminates the risk of bacterial contamination.
Now let’s turn to those sprouts that adorn many a salad and sandwich in places that feature so-called health foods. The largest recorded case of E. coli 0157:H7 infection in history had nothing to do with meat. It had to do with radish sprouts. In 1996 in Japan 6,000 people became sick and 17 died from eating raw radish sprouts. Can you imagine the publicity this would have garnered if meat had been involved? And it doesn’t only happen in Japan. In the US since 1995, 15 outbreaks of Salmonella infection and two of E. coli 0157:H7 have been associated with sprouts.

Why does this happen? Because conditions favourable for seed sprouting are ideal for increasing bacterial counts on seeds. Bacteria just love the moist, warm, nutrient-filled sprouts. How do bacteria contaminate the seeds in the first place? On the farm untreated agricultural water may be used, manure used as fertilizer may be improperly composted and there may be runoff from animal production facilities. That’s why federal guidelines stipulate that potable water should be used, that synthetic fertilizers are preferable for sprout seed growth and that seeds should be disinfected by dipping them into a calcium hypochlorite solution for 15 minutes. It is also recommended that people at high risk for infections, such as young children or the elderly not consume raw sprouts.
As for the rest of us, there is no worry if recommended procedures are followed. Indeed certain sprouts, especially broccoli sprouts are highly recommended. These contain sulphoraphane, a substance that may help reduce the risk of macular degeneration, hypertension and prostate cancer. No worry about contamination here because the company that produces these takes extreme care to follow government guidelines and tests every batch for salmonella and E. coli before shipping to stores. But as far as the run of the mill raw sprouts that burst out of those vegetarian sandwiches E well who knows their history? Statistically there is a greater chance they will make you sick than the hamburger everyone worries about.