Raw Sprouts: Are They Safe to Eat?

FDA warns against eating raw sprouts that may be contaminated

(RxWiki News) Last year, when the supermarket giant Kroger stopped selling sprouts, the news sounded alarm bells around the safety of selling and consuming sprouted seeds. What do you need to know?

Frequently touted as a health food, sprouts have been blamed for 54 disease outbreaks since the 1990s, according to NPR. The US Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers to be aware of the risks tied to this seemingly benign food.

The main problem with sprouts is that the microbes that cause disease are often inside the seed itself, and it is difficult to eliminate all risk of harm to the consumer.

"Cook sprouts to reduce risks."

Sprouts are germinated seeds that are typically eaten raw or cooked. Many different types of seeds can be sold as sprouts: alfalfa, mung beans, lentils, peas, and soybeans, to name a few.

You can find them sold at grocery stores, and appearing in sandwiches, salads, and alongside many Asian dishes like pho and pad thai. Sprouts have gained a following for being rich in nutrients and as part of a raw food diet.

But the frequent outbreaks have scared a few big chains away from sprouts. Jimmy John's, the sandwich shop chain, had four outbreaks linked to their sprouts in five years, according to NPR.

Sprouts need warm, humid conditions to grow, says the FDA. Unfortunately, those are also ideal growing conditions for bacteria.

The most common pathogens are E. coli and salmonella, dangerous bacteria that can cause severe sickness, especially in the young and elderly.

But the current FDA standards for making sprouts safe to eat are not always effective, according to Bob Sanderson, president of the International Sprout Growers Association. In an interview with NPR, he said the recommended method of using chlorine to process sprouts meant applying a powerful chemical that hasn't been proven effective to eradicate pathogens inside the seed itself.

The FDA has not updated food safety standards for commercially-sold sprouts since 1999, but it also warns people who are sprouting their own seeds at home.

“If just a few harmful bacteria are present in or on the seed, the bacteria can grow to high levels during sprouting, even under sanitary conditions at home,” according to an article on the agency's FoodSafety.gov website.

So what can you do to avoid illness from sprouts? Basically, cook them or avoid them completely.

Here are the FDA's recommendations.

  • Cook sprouts. They're known for providing a fresh crunch, but a cooked sprout is the only sprout where you can be assured that harmful bacteria have been killed by high temperatures.
  • Children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with weak immune systems should not eat sprouts.
  • In restaurants, request that sprouts be left out of your food.
Review Date: 
January 9, 2013