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Sprouts in Canada

25.nov.05, Douglas Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

25.nov.05, Douglas Powell, Commentary from the Food Safety Network
I don't like sprouts. Never have. When I inadvertently eat them (like when someone sneaks them into my sandwich, often at a food safety conference) I find myself picking them out of my teeth.
But lots of people do. And that's fine. Consumption of sprouted seeds and beans has become increasingly popular in North America and other parts of the world, consistent with an increase in consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables as recommended by health authorities. Nutritious and yummy to some, sprouts are popular options for vegetarians and those trying to increase their vegetable intake.
Once thought as hippie food, grouped with yogurt and granola, it is now estimated that up to 10 per cent of the Canadian population consumes fresh sprouts.
But the consumption of raw sprouts has been linked to over 30 outbreaks of foodborne illness throughout North America in the past 15 year affecting thousands of people, as over 200 Ontario residents are now, painfully, discovering (a complete list of North American sprout outbreaks is available at http://www.foodsafety.ksu.edu/en/article-details.php?a=2&c=6&sc=36&id=865.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) even suggests that 40 per cent of produce-related outbreaks are linked to sprouts.
On Thursday afternoon, Ontario's Chief Medical Officer of Health confirmed that Ontario is experiencing an outbreak of Salmonella and that preliminary investigations point to mung bean sprouts as the source.
The public is being advised to avoid eating mung bean sprouts until the source of this outbreak is confirmed. And grocery stores in Ontario have pulled all mung bean sprouts from distribution. This may be an overreaction, unfairly penalizing producers who do take care, but warranted given the uncertainty of the situation and the large number of sick people.
Since the beginning of November, 266 laboratory-confirmed cases of Salmonella have been reported to the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care, up substantially from the 20-25 cases normally reported per month at this time of year.
Thursday evening, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) reported that Toronto Sun Wah Trading Inc. (also known as Hollend Enterprises Inc.) was issuing a voluntary recall of its mung bean sprouts.
By late Friday afternoon, Toronto Public Health announced it had issued an order against Toronto Sun Wah Trading Inc. to halt distribution of bean sprouts (mung beans) as the product may be contaminated with Salmonella
Dr. David McKeown, Medical Officer of Health for the City of Toronto, was quoted as saying, "Our inspectors have taken samples at the food processing facility to determine the source of the salmonella contamination. No bean sprouts will be distributed from this plant until we are confident that the product is safe for consumption."
So, at this point, the outbreak investigation is proceeding as it should, in a CSI-like fashion, with regular information made available to the public. There are always uncertainties in these things.
The problem, for the now 290 people possibly infected, is this: most probably didn't know that consuming raw sprouts of any kind presents a potential risk.
In Jan. 2002, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued
a renewed call for Americans to avoid fresh alfalfa or other sprouts, and that people, particularly young children, the elderly and those with weak immune systems, should avoid eating raw sprouts.
Dr. Mark Beatty of the CDC's National Center for Infectious Diseases, was quoted as saying in 2002 that, "The immunocompromised people could develop shock and die from the infection," although healthy people were at a lower risk for such complications.
Beatty was further quoted as saying that a 2001 outbreak in four western states revealed a "misconception" that sprouts were a healthy food. At least three of the people involved in the outbreak ate sprouts partly for health reasons.
Sprouts present a special food safety challenge because the way they are grown—high moisture and high temperature—also happens to be an ideal environment for bacterial growth.
Because of continued outbreaks, the sprout industry, regulatory agencies, and the academic community pooled their efforts in the late 1990s to improve the safety of the product, including the implementation of good manufacturing practices, establishing guidelines for safe sprout production and chemical disinfection of seeds prior to sprouting.
But are such guidelines actually being followed? And is anyone checking?
In response to the 2001 outbreak, the California Department of Health Services and the California Department of Education recommended that schools stop serving uncooked sprouts to young children.
A diet rich in fresh fruits and vegetables is actively promoted as the cornerstone of a healthy lifestyle. And it is. But there are risks, they need to be acknowledged, and they need to be managed. The very characteristic that affords dietary benefit—fresh—also creates microbiological risk: Because they are not cooked, anything that comes into contact with fresh fruits and vegetables is a possible source of contamination.
Is the water used for irrigation or rinsing clean or is it loaded with pathogens? Do the workers who collect the produce follow strict hygienic practices such as thorough handwashing? Are the vehicles onlyused to transport fresh produce or are they also used to transport live animals that could be sources of microbial contamination? The possibilities are almost endless.
The first consumer warning about sprouts was issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 1997, By July 9, 1999, FDA had advised all Americans to be aware of the risks associated with eating raw sprouts. Consumers were informed that the best way to control the risk was to not eat raw sprouts. The FDA stated that it would monitor the situation and take any further actions required to protect consumers.
At the time, several Canadian media accounts depicted the U.S. response as panic, quoting Health Canada officials as saying perhaps some were at risk, but that sprouts were generally a low-risk product.
Tell that to the sick Ontarians.
I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store this morning who runs the food service aspects for a local golf course that hosts many weddings and business meetings. I asked what he was picking up, and he said, "No Salmonella on the menu tonight, no sprouts."
I asked if he served them in the past and he said demand had dropped off, but that some business lunches still requested sprouts in sandwiches (lucky them).
I asked if he knew there had been previous outbreaks and that sprouts could be risky.
He said that before hearing the news this morning, he had no idea.
Food safety communicators, including me, simply must do better.
Douglas Powell is scientific director of the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph. The Food Safety Network's national toll-free line for obtaining food safety information is1-866-50-FSNET (1-866-503-7638) and further information is available at www.foodsafety.ksu.edu. Visit our blogs at barfblog.com, kitchenconfessional.com, and foodcontamination.ca. A sprout info sheet is available in the Commentary section of the FSN blog at http://blog.foodsafety.ksu.edu/
A sprout safety fact sheet is available at:
http://www.foodsafety.ksu.edu/articles/866/Sprouts.pdf
A listing of sprout-related outbreaks is available at; http://www.foodsafety.ksu.edu/en/article-details.php?a=2&c=6&sc=36&id=865