Fresh & Local
The Problem with Sprouts
Column #59, Published Nov 2nd, 2012

It is odd how fairly important stories sometime get almost no mention in the news. I heard a 20-second radio news story a week or two ago that Kroger will no longer carry bean, alfalfa and clover sprouts. Kroger is the largest supermarket chain in the U.S. with over 2,400 stores in 31 states, so this would seem to be important.

Payton Pruett, Kroger's vice president of food safety, said in a press release, “After a thorough, science-based review, we have decided to voluntarily discontinue selling fresh sprouts.”

You probably have not heard this either, but two years ago Wal-Mart made the same decision to discontinue selling sprouts. Wal-Mart spokesman Kory Lundberg said, “It really comes down to our commitment to our customers' safety and knowing the microbial risk associated with sprouts.”

It is easy to see why these chains made their decisions. According to USA Today, data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that in the U.S. between 1990 and 2010, more than 2,500 Americans have been sickened by contaminated sprouts in at least 46 outbreaks of salmonella, E. coli and listeria.

The last straw for Wal-Mart was a 2010 multistate salmonella outbreak in alfalfa sprouts. Kroger has already experienced two sprout recalls this year and decided that there will not be a third.

According to USA Today, large sprout pathogen outbreaks within the last two years include:

Undoubtedly the worst pathogen outbreak in sprouts was not in this country. In May and June of last year (2011), bean sprouts from a farm in Germany that were contaminated with E. coli sickened more than 4,300 and killed over 50 people primarily in Europe.

The problem with sprouts is the seed coat on the outside of the seed. The seed coat contains tiny cracks and imperfections. If a crop becomes infected with a pathogen, any bacteria on the seed can easily get inside the seed. Once bacteria spreads inside the seed, there is no completely effective treatment to kill it (other than cooking the sprouts).

Unfortunately for people who like sprouts, the ideal conditions for sprouting seeds - warmth and moisture - are also ideal for the multiplication of pathogenic bacteria if they happen to be present on or in the seed. Even if the seed is only lightly contaminated, salmonella and E. coli levels can quickly increase to dangerous levels during the sprouting process.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) actually advises that children, the elderly, pregnant women, and persons with weakened immune systems should avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind, and that sprouts should be thoroughly cooked to reduce the risk of illness.

Most people probably consider seed sprouts to be fresh produce, so their inherent safety problems give the entire produce industry a black eye. The supermarket chains were right to stop selling them.

Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at