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Sprouts in Canada

11.jan.02, Douglas Powell, Katija Blaine and Ben Chapman, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday issued a renewed call for Americans to avoid fresh alfalfa or other sprouts because of links to yet another outbreak of foodborne disease.
This following dozens of outbreaks of salmonella and E.coli O157:H7 linked to fresh sprouts over the past decade -- outbreaks which have sickened tens of thousands -- and which prompted the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998 to warn people of the risks associated with raw sprouts.
But don't expect to hear much from the Canadian government. The latest outbreak, described in a CDC technical report published on Friday, involved a relatively rare strain of salmonella called S. kottbus, which struck 32 individuals in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico in Spring 2001.
Investigators identified a single sprout producer as the source of the contaminated sprouts using seeds that had been imported from Australia in November 2000.
The CDC was clear on Friday: 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, "The immuno-compromised 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 last year's outbreak in the 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? And in at least one case, it appears that the contamination was actually inside the seed; that is, no amount of care and cleanliness would have made the product safe.
So while scientists grapple with complexities of seed contamination, consumers are rightly wondering, are sprouts safe? For many, especially the most vulnerable in our societies, the answer is no. For example, in response to the 2001 outbreak, California Department of Health Services and the California Department of Education recommend 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 used to transport fresh produce 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 CDC in 1997, By July 9, 1999, the FDA advised all Americans to be aware of the risks associated with eating raw sprouts. Consumers were informed that they needed to understand that at that time the best way to control the risk was to not eat raw sprouts. Additional consumer advice provided in the advisory included the cooking of sprouts and specifically requesting that raw sprouts not be added to foods at restaurants and delis. 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. One Canadian organic sprouts producer stated that sprouts was less a worry than all the chemicals farmers put on their crops to fight weed and bugs. Another sprouts grower stated that the risk from sprouts was probably better than risks associated with other foods such as eggs and meats, and, citing an innocent vanity that hopefully disappeared with the outbreak of E. coli O157:H7 in Walkerton, Ont., that Canadian consumers had nothing to fear since all the sprouts sold in Canada were grown there.
A Canadian Food Inspection Agency official stated that consumption of sprouts was just as hazardous as eating several other foods such as unpasteurized apple juice, soft cheeses, raw milk, oysters and undercooked chicken or hamburger, and that raw sprouts were safe for normal healthy adults (we wouldn't recommend any of those foods for children or adults).

But are such guidelines actually being followed? And is anyone checking? And in at least one case, it appears that the contamination was actually inside the seed; that is, no amount of care and cleanliness would have made the product safe.

A year later, due to increasing numbers of illnesses linked to sprouts, the FDA expanded its warning to advise against anyone eating raw sprouts. That advisory still is in effect. Sprouts that are fully cooked do not seem to cause problems. CFIA issued several health advisories in 1998 and 1999 but these were advisories against consuming specific brands of sprouts that were found to be contaminated. Canada has still not issues a general warning on consumption of raw sprouts in spite of 14 outbreaks of salmonella and 2 outbreaks of E. coli O157 linked to sprouts since 1995, five of which were in Canada. CFIA has a fact sheet describing sprout contamination (http://inspection.gc.ca/english/corpaffr/foodfacts/sproutse.shtml) where they state they are encouraging industry to communicate the health risks and that public health officials are working with industry representatives to implement safer growing methods while warning consumers about the risk of eating uncooked sprouts. The major part of their sprout safety strategy is a sampling program.
The effect has been minimal. Every government meeting we've attended in the past few years has featured a standard lunch of sandwiches and salads with prominent helpings of sprouts. Americans are talking straight to their consumers. Canadians are being polite.

Douglas Powell is scientific director, Katija Blaine is a research assistant and Ben Chapman is a graduate student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph.