Are Alfalfa Sprouts Safe To Eat?

By Dr. Michelle Annette Smith, Senior Policy Analyst, Office of Food Safety, Produce Safety Staff, FDA

 

Since the nationwide alfalfa sprout recall and the related Salmonella outbreak were announced on May 21, we have received a number of questions from consumers who are concerned about eating sprouts. Here are some of the most commonly asked questions:

 

Why are people getting sick from alfalfa sprouts? One of the big reasons is that alfalfa sprouts are not cooked. Like any fresh produce that is consumed raw or lightly cooked, raw sprouts carry a risk of foodborne illness.

 

What makes raw sprouts different from other raw produce?

The big difference is that seeds and beans need warm, humid conditions to sprout and grow. These are the same conditions that are ideal for bacteria to grow, including dangerous bacteria like Salmonella if they are present.

 

Is it safer to grow my own sprouts at home?

Not necessarily. In outbreaks associated with sprouts, the seed is typically the source of the dangerous bacteria. If just a few of these bacteria are present, either in the seed or on its surface, they can grow to high levels during sprouting, even if you’re growing them under sanitary conditions at home.

 

Are raw sprouts riskier for certain groups of people?

Yes. In general, certain groups of people are at higher risk for severe foodborne illness: pregnant women, children, the elderly, and anyone whose immune system is weakened. These groups should avoid eating raw or lightly cooked sprouts as well as and other high risk foods, such as unpasteurized milk and juices, raw fish and shellfish, and soft cheeses made from unpasteurized milk.

I think I got sick from eating sprouts. What should I do?

 

Most people infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12-72 hours after infection. The illness usually lasts 4 to 7 days. In recent years, sprouts have also been associated with outbreaks of E. coli and Listeria. If you think you have a foodborne illness, call your doctor.

If I’m a healthy adult, do I need to take precautions with sprouts? Cooking kills harmful bacteria, so cooking sprouts thoroughly will reduce the risk of illness. If you’re eating out, you may want to consider asking that raw sprouts not be added to your salad or sandwich.

 

If you choose to eat raw sprouts, follow these tips:

  • Buy only sprouts kept at refrigerator temperature. Select crisp-looking sprouts with the buds attached. Avoid musty-smelling, dark, or slimy-looking sprouts.
  • Refrigerate sprouts at home. Refrigerators should be set to maintain a temperature of 40°F or below. Wash hands with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling raw foods. Rinse sprouts thoroughly with water before use. Rinsing can help remove surface dirt. Do not use soap or other detergents.

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Author: Dr. Harlan Stueven, MD

Harlan Stueven M.D. is a Board-Certified Emergency physician with sub-specialization in Environmental Toxicology and Board Certification in Medical Toxicology. Starting his career in the USAF, he served as a Flight Surgeon and Environmental Health Consultant Physician where one of his duties was monitoring food safety. In his nearly 40-year practice, he treated a range of medical, surgical and poisoning emergencies. He has been a Medical Director and/or Chairman of several hospital-based Emergency Medicine Departments, served as the President of Emergency and Environmental Medicine consulting group, a physician group Chief Financial Officer and sat on many national, state and local committees. Dr. Stueven founded Dining Grades and the Dining Safety Alliance to improve food safety by increasing awareness of food borne illness and the formation of partnerships within the food industry. He is a consultant to the Wisconsin Retail Food Establishment Grading Work Group; a Co-investigator in a CDC funded “Evaluation of Health Department Restaurant Inspection Programs” project. He has presented at several National, State and Regional conferences on restaurant grading and food safety. He is an accomplished leader, medical researcher, a champion of process improvement, author, and national and international speaker.

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