Another sprout-related Salmonella outbreak earlier this month has prompted the attorneys of the Seattle law firm, Marler Clark, to call on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to require warnings on packaging of all raw sprouts. Marler Clark specializes in cases involving foodborne illness.
As of November 24, a total of 68 persons infected with the outbreak strains of Salmonella Enteritidis have been reported from 10 states. The number of ill people identified in each state is as follows: Connecticut (4), Maine (3), Massachusetts (31), Montana (1), New Hampshire (4), New York (5), Ohio (1), Pennsylvania (10), Rhode Island (6), and Vermont (3). The one ill person from Montana traveled to the Eastern United States during the period when likely exposure occurred.
Illness onset dates range from September 30, 2014 to November 10, 2014. Ill persons range in age from younger than one year to 83 years, with a median age of 31 years. Fifty-six percent of ill persons are female. Among 43 persons with available information, 11 (26%) have been hospitalized, and no deaths have been reported.
Collaborative investigation efforts of state, local, and federal public health and regulatory agencies indicate that bean sprouts produced by Wonton Foods, Inc. are the likely source of this outbreak.
The information available to date indicates that bean sprouts produced by Wonton Foods, Inc. may be contaminated with Salmonella and are not safe to eat. As of November 21, 2014, the firm has verbally agreed to voluntarily stop the production and sale of their bean sprouts.
“According to the FDA’s own 1999 advisory, Recommendations on Sprouted Seeds, sprouts have been increasingly implicated in foodborne outbreaks. The time has come to label sprouts as potentially hazardous,” says William Marler, the firm’s managing partner. He suggests this labeling mirror the requirements now found on unpasteurized juices:
– WARNING: This product may contain harmful bacteria that can cause serious illness in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems.
As far back as September 1998, the FDA and CDC issued a warning against sprouts urging, children, pregnant women, and the elderly that they should not eat alfalfa sprouts until growers find a way to reduce the risk of E. coli. They also warned that any people with weakened immune systems should avoid eating sprouts as well.
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,” says Marler. “Most people don’t understand the risks. The reality is most assume that something so “natural” is healthy, but the opposite is true—people who eat sprouts are gambling with their health each and every time they add them to a salad or sandwich. A warning label would go a long way towards explaining the real risks of sprouts.”
Bill Marler is an accomplished food safety advocate and attorney. He began litigating foodborne illness cases in 1993, when he successfully represented Brianne Kiner, the most seriously injured survivor of the Jack in the Box E. coli O157:H7 outbreak. Over the years, Bill and his firm, Marler Clark, have become the leaders in representing victims of foodborne illness. Marler Clark, The Food Safety Law Firm, is the nation’s leading law firm representing victims of hepatitis A outbreaks.
Bill spends much of his time traveling to address food industry groups, fair associations, and public health groups about foodborne illness, related litigation, and surrounding issues. He has testified before Congress as well as State Legislatures. He is a frequent author of articles related to foodborne illness in food safety journals and magazines as well as on his personal blog, www.marlerblog.com. Bill also recently founded Food Safety News (www.foodsafetynews.com) as a one-stop resource for global food safety news and information.