Sprouts are a pretty ubiquitous sandwich topping, even at more mainstream restaurants, but a series of “sproutbreaks” in the last 20 years have some food safety experts calling them into question.
When I was pregnant, my insurance company required a phone consultation with a nurse practitioner. She went through a lot of things that I should and shouldn’t do, now that there was a tiny person in my belly. A lot of her recommendations were as expected. She advised against drinking alcohol and that Icut back to one cup of coffee or less per day. As a long-time vegan, I was sure that the list of forbidden foods would be non-existent. When we think of foods that pregnant ladies can’t eat, raw fish and soft cheeses are what spring to mind, right? When I told her that I was vegan, she said, “Oh! Then you’re not eating most of these things already. Just don’t eat any sprouts.”
That surprised me. Sprouts are loaded with health benefits, so they seemed like a great choice for keeping me and my baby healthy. For pregnant women, the elderly, young children and people with compromised immune systems, though, the potential costs may outweigh the benefits.
Food Safety News recently reported on the history of what they’ve called “sproutbreaks:” food poisoning outbreaks linked specifically to contaminated sprouts. There have been two recent sproutbreaks here in the U.S., and sprouts have a strong link to food poisoning going back to the 1990s.
In 1998, the FDA urged children, pregnant women and the elderly to avoid sprouts, after a series of alfalfa sprout-related food poisoning outbreaks. Most of these are on the small side, but there have been some widespread cases of foodborne illness from sprouts. A 2011 sproutbreak from bean sprouts in Germany sickened 3,700 people, and 40 people died.
For a healthy adult, eating tainted sprouts is probably not going to kill you. You might get pretty sick for a day or two, but chances are you won’t end up in the hospital. Certain populations, though, like pregnant women, are more at risk. Foodborne illness, like salmonella, can be passed to your baby.
To understand safer sprouting, you need to understand what makes sprouts particularly prone to contamination.
The way that you sprout seeds, beans or nuts is by placing them in a warm, damp place. Those are also ideal conditions for breeding bacteria. According to a UC Davis publication on safer sprouting, most sproutbreaks begin with contaminated seeds. That means that you can sanitize your containers all day and still end up with unsafe sprouts.
The publication lays out some ways that industry is making safer sprouts and tips for sprouting more safely at home. For home sprouting, they recommend choosing certified pathogen-free seeds. These seeds are screened for pathogens, so you know that you’re getting safe seeds.
On top of that, they suggest “heating on the stovetop for five minutes in a solution of 3% hydrogen peroxide (available at most drug stores) preheated to 140°F (60°C). Use a clean, accurate cooking thermometer (preferably digital) to reach and maintain this temperature during treatment.” After heating, you should rinse the seeds, then submerge in water and skim off any floaters.
They also suggest sanitizing your cooking surfaces and containers with 3/4 cups unscented bleach diluted in a gallon of water.
Robb Bauman, owner of Mountain Valley Seed Co., shared 10 steps for safer sprouting with Desert News. Some of his steps align with what UC Davis recommends, but he also offers an alternative to bleach and some extra safety precautions that you can take for safer sprouting.