With well over 40 outbreaks linked to sprouts over the last few decades, it should come as no surprise that the 31 dead, 3,086 ill (789 with HUS) in Europe and the United States have been linked to German grown, locally consumed, organic sprouts. In fact (via my friend at efoodalert), the Chemical and Veterinary Investigation Office of Rhine-Ruhr-Wupper has found E. coli O104 in an opened package of sprouts retrieved from the trash of a household in Rhein-Sieg-Kreis. Two of the three family members in the household ate the sprouts and were infected with the outbreak pathogen.

The sprouts came from Gärtnerhoff Bienenbüttel GmbH from Lower Saxony. John Remmel, Consumer Protection Minister for North Rhine-Westphalia, cautions that the new finding is not definitive, as the package of sprouts had already been opened. Additional studies are still in progress. However, earlier Reinhard Burger, president of the Robert Koch Institute, Germany’s national disease control center, said the pattern of the outbreak had produced enough evidence to draw that conclusion even though no [at the time] tests of sprouts from an organic farm in Lower Saxony had come back positive for the E. coli strain behind the outbreak. Warnings have been lifted against lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers. Burger said at a press conference with the heads of Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment and Federal Office for Consumer Protection: “It is the sprouts.”

sprouts warn.jpgAs far back as September 1998, the FDA issued a warning against sprouts urging:

children, pregnant women and the elderly should not eat alfalfa sprouts until growers find a way to reduce the risk of a potentially deadly bacteria that infects some sprouts, the Food and Drug Administration said this week. The FDA, which is investigating sprout industry practices, said children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems should avoid eating sprouts. The agency’s statement, issued Monday, repeated similar but little-noticed advice the U.S. Centers for Disease Control gave to doctors and researchers a year ago.

Here is the CDC warning :

Sprouts Not Healthy Food for Everyone

Children, the elderly, and persons whose immune systems are not functioning well should not eat raw sprouts, because current treatments of seeds and sprouts cannot get rid of all bacteria present.

Persons who are at high risk for complications from foodborne illness should probably not eat raw sprouts, according to an article in the current issue of Emerging Infectious Diseases, CDC’s peer-reviewed journal, which tracks new and reemerging infectious diseases worldwide.

Although sprouts are often considered a “health food,” the warm, humid conditions needed for growing sprouts from seeds are also ideal for bacteria to flourish. Salmonella, E. coli, and other bacteria can grow to high levels without affecting the appearance of the sprouts.

Researchers have treated both seeds and sprouts with heat or washed them in solutions of chlorine, alcohol, and other chemicals. Some of these disinfectants reduced the levels of bacteria, but a potential hazard remained, especially for persons with weak immune systems. High temperatures that would kill the bacteria on the seeds would also keep them from sprouting. Until an effective way is found to prevent illness from sprouts, they should be eaten with caution, if at all.

In 2000, I suggested that a warnng label be put on sprout packages.  And, did I tell you it is “Sprout Month?”