Is it time to warn about sprouts?

Tonight the CDC updated its “Sproutbreak” numbers.  Now a total of 25 persons infected with the outbreak strain of STEC O26 have been reported from 8 states.  The number of ill persons identified in each state is as follows: Alabama (1), Iowa (5), Missouri (3), Kansas (2), Michigan (9), Arkansas (1), Ohio (3), and Wisconsin (1).  The outbreak has been linked to Jimmy John’s – again.

In the past four years Jimmy John’s has been linked to three other sprout related foodborne illness outbreaks. In 2008, at least 19 E. coli O157:H7 cases were linked to alfalfa sprouts sold at Colorado Jimmy John’s restaurants. In 2009, 228 people became ill in Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, and Kansas after consuming Salmonella contaminated sprouts at multiple locations including Jimmy John’s. Again in 2010, multiple state and federal health authorities linked 94 Salmonella cases to alfalfa and spicy sprouts used in Jimmy John’s sandwiches in 16 states.

We are getting over 55 sprout related outbreaks reported in the past few decades.  Thanks to Barfblog for counting.

As 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.

Here is my suggested warning:

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