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Sprouts appear to be E. coli culprit -- why that's not surprising

June 10, 2011|By Marissa Cevallos, HealthKey / For the Booster Shots blog
  • Sprouts grow in warm, wet conditions favorable for the growth of microbes like E. coli and salmonella. Safflower sprouts shown here.
Sprouts grow in warm, wet conditions favorable for the growth of microbes… (David Karp / For The Times )

Sprouts are the likely culprit behind the deadly E. coli outbreak, German officials have concluded, and in hindsight, it might seem little surprise: Raw sprouts can be hospitable hosts for pathogens such as E. coli and salmonella.

The crunchy vegetables have been behind several microbial outbreaks in the U.S. Recently, at least 140 people have been infected in a salmonella outbreak blamed on alfalfa sprouts and linked back to Tiny Greens Alfalfa Sprouts or Spicy Sprouts served at Jimmy John’s, according to the CDC.

In the last 15 years, there have been at least 30 disease outbreaks (mostly of salmonella and E. coli) traced back to sprouts in the U.S. None were as severe as the 1996 outbreaks in Japan, in which E. coli sickened about 12,000 people--tainted radish sprouts were the likely cause.

There are plenty of ways for sprouts to become contaminated with E. coli or salmonella, a USDA article called “Safer Sprouts” explains:

Salmonella or E. coli could be harbored in bird droppings, in manure applied to fields as fertilizer, in contaminated water that's used to irrigate fields, or perhaps in dirt left over in improperly cleaned seed-sorting machinery. The pathogens might also live in droppings of rodents that eat seeds stored in bags, bins, or silos.”

Once the organisms are present, the hospitable growing environment of sprouts—warm, indoors and regularly misted with water—allows microbes to live comfortably.

While companies sort out how to prevent outbreaks, consumers can take a few steps to protect themselves. Here are a few tips from

-- "Children, the elderly, pregnant women, and persons with weakened immune systems should avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind (including alfalfa, clover, radish, and mung bean sprouts)."

- "Cook sprouts thoroughly to reduce the risk of illness. Cooking kills the harmful bacteria."

- "Request that raw sprouts not be added to your food. If you purchase a sandwich or salad at a restaurant or delicatessen, check to make sure that raw sprouts have not been added.”

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