In the face of recent E. coli and Salmonella outbreaks linked to sprouts, food safety advocate and attorney Bill Marler, managing partner of Seattle-based Marler Clark, is calling on seed and sprout producers to take a hard, realistic look at the danger their product poses to consumers.
Though the month of June was dubbed “International Sprout Health & Wellness Month” by the International Sprout Growers Association (ISGA), the world has seen at least three sprout-based foodborne illness outbreaks this month, including the deadliest in history: the E. coli O104:H4 outbreak in Germany that has killed nearly 50, landed over 800 in the hospital with hemolytic uremic syndrome, and sickened 4,000. More recently, France has seen a cluster of E. coli O104:H4 infections related to sprout seeds, and in the U.S., an Idaho sprout farm had been linked to at least 21 Salmonella illnesses as of June 28th. According to OutbreakDatabase.com there have been a total four sprout-based foodborne illness outbreaks in 2011 and 48 since 1991.
“We’ve seen about 4,000 people get sick this year. Another 44 have died because they ate sprouts, and I don’t think it is altogether clear what sprout growers are planning to do about it,” said Marler.
In January of this year, Marler donated $10,000 to the ISGA for improving the safety of sprouts. In an interview with the agriculture news organization The Packer, ISGA president Bob Sanderson said Marler’s donation would help speed implementation of a food safety audit for sprouts and anticipated a start to the audit of February 1, 2011. However, in June the ISGA told Food Safety News the audit was still being developed.
In light of the most recent sprout-related outbreaks, Marler renewed his call on the sprout industry to put warning labels on sprout packaging.
“If this were another product that wasn’t considered a healthy food, we as a society would have a much bigger issue with the atrocious food safety track record of sprouts, but because sprouts are considered healthy—the ISGA even touts them as a ‘wonder food’, our first reaction isn’t to associate risk with consumption,” said Marler.
“Those of us entrenched in food safety know how dangerous sprouts can be, but the average person does not. At the very least, consumers deserve to be given equal information regarding the risks and benefits of sprouts. A warning label would provide this.”
According to the FDA, sprouts pose a special problem because of the potential for pathogen growth during the sprouting process.
Marler specifically urges seed and sprout producers to adopt the following measures to prevent pathogen growth on sprouts and protect consumers:
- Seed manufacturers must adopt good agricultural practices to limit bacterial contamination on seed plants.
- Seed manufacturers must adopt a chemical or other treatment on seeds to kill bacteria
- Sprout manufacturers must adopt good manufacturing processes that include the use of clean water, healthy workers and a hygienic environment.
- Sprout sellers must place adequate warning labels on all sprout containers informing consumers of bacterial and viral risks associated with sprout consumption.