Raw or undercooked sprouts pose a risk of food-borne infection because, unlike other fresh produce, seeds and beans need warm humid conditions to sprout and grow. Bacteria that can cause illness, including Salmonella, Listeria and Escherichia coli, thrive in such warm and humid conditions.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system should not eat raw or lightly cooked sprouts. The caution includes alfalfa, clover, radish and mung-bean sprouts.
During pregnancy, women are at increased risk for contracting food-borne diseases, said Sanja Ilic, The Ohio State University food-safety specialist.
“Listeriosis in pregnant women can have severe consequences for both mother and fetus,” she said.
Raw sprouts served at Jimmy John’s restaurants in Illinois and Wisconsin were the likely source of the recent multistate Salmonella Montevideo outbreak that began Jan. 3, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreak has sickened at least eight people in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota who ate raw clover sprouts. The most commonly eaten sprouts are alfalfa and mung-bean sprouts, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
According to FDA, raw or lightly cooked sprouts have been associated with some 30 food-borne-illness outbreaks since 1996, with the majority of the outbreaks caused by E. coli and Salmonella. Symptoms include abdominal cramps, fever and diarrhea, which typically occur 12 to 72 hours after infection.
Sprouts begin as seeds that germinate into young plants that are then either eaten raw or lightly cooked. The seed is typically the source of the bacteria. While there are several techniques used to kill harmful bacteria that may be present on seeds, according to the FDA there is no treatment that can fully guarantee all harmful bacteria will be destroyed. Sprouts must be cooked thoroughly to reduce the risk of contracting a food-borne illness, the FDA recommends.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has tips for consumers not under the government safety advisory.
- Buy only fresh sprouts that have been kept properly refrigerated.
- Do not buy sprouts that have a musty smell or slimy appearance.
- Refrigerate sprouts at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or less.
- Rinse sprouts thoroughly under running water before use.