According to multiple news reports, on Saturday German scientists identified the source of the deadly E. coli O104:H4 outbreak around Hamburg, Germany, as bean sprouts not hamburgers, lettuce, tomato, or cucumbers. No surprise to anybody who pays attention to food safety issues.
There have been at least 30 outbreaks in the US alone since 1990 sickening more than 2000 people according to Bill Marler, a personal injury and products liability attorney who tracks sprout outbreaks. Radish sprouts caused one of the world's largest food-borne illness outbreaks in Japan in 1996, sickening about 10,000 people, many of them children.
How could this be? How could innocent crunchy, juicy, delicious sprouts be dangerous? Think about it. Sprouts are made by harvesting seeds from an open field where they are easily contaminated by Bambi, Porky, Bugs, Tweetie, Mickey & Minnie, and other cute little critters who refuse to use sanitary stations to do their business.
Or they can be contaminated by irrigation water from animal waste runoff, human waste, or even manure. Yes, organic foodies, manure is an easy source of contamination. It is supposed to be sterilized, but many organic growers try to sterilize it naturally by just stirring the compost pile and hoping that the heat in the center kills the bugs. Good luck with that.
Worse still, many of our sprout seeds are imported from countries that don't have water cleanliness regs as strict as ours, which are faaaar from perfect. They may be bagged in burlap and munched on by rats in the ships' holds or in warehouses.
When it is time to turn them from seeds to sprouts, they are brought indoors, soaked in water, and kept warm so the seed will germinate. Pretty quickly the cells of the seed start multiplying rapidly because these are perfect growing conditions. But not just for sprouts. For bacteria too. Sprouting systems are like incubators, and it is very hard to prevent microbes from growing. They've tried chlorinated water or other purifying systems with only limited success, but so far there has been no solution.
Then they are bagged and shipped to stores where the bad guys can keep on growing, especially if the truck is not cold enough, or if they sit on the loading dock a while. A food safety scientist I know calls the packaging a "germ culture chamber". And before you know it, people are falling face down in their salads.
Of course they could be made perfectly safe by cooking, but then they lose their crunch and much of their appeal. Irradiation will clean them up, but everyone who thinks that will be a hit with sprout lovers raise your hands. I don't see any hands yet. I must confess I love raw sprouts, but I'm probably the only one who is not afraid of irradiation.
And don't think that growing them yourself is much safer. You will be buying the same seeds, possibly covered with dormant pathogens, and as soon as you wet them and warm them, lookout.
Examination of seeds in previously unopened home sprouting kits revealed that the soy, mustard, and cress seeds were contaminated with Bacillus cereus among other bugs. In 1987, Harmon et al recovered B. cereus from 57% of commercially sold alfalfa, mung bean, and wheat seeds intended for sprout production so the problem has been around a while.
A year ago tainted alfalfa sprouts were sold by Walmart and 22 people got sick. How much longer will Walmart sell sprouts? My bet is they'll discontinue them within two weeks, as soon as sprouts are lead pipe confirmed as the German outbreak source.
And don't try to pin this on Food Inc. and big ag like ConAgra or Monsanto. Most sprouts are grown by small farmers, and the sad part of this story is that, if, as I predict, groceries will stop carrying sprouts, a lot of Mom & Pop farmers will join the unemployed.
All text is Copyright (c) 2011 By Meathead, and all rights are reserved
For more of Meathead's writing, photos, recipes, and barbecue info please visit his website AmazingRibs.com and subscribe to his email newsletter, Smoke Signals.