This Salad and Sandwich Staple Is a Surprisingly Common Cause of Food Poisoning—Here’s How to Stay Safe
Add raw sprouts to your list of handle-with-care foods.
When it comes to food safety, there’s a lot of confusion out there surrounding which foods can and can’t cause foodborne illnesses. Picturing a common cause of food poisoning often means imagining some sort of meat or eggs—Salmonella and eggs tend to go together pretty often—but plenty of other foods can potentially cause foodborne illnesses. Think potato salad, some fruits, and, surprising to some, raw sprouts.
That’s right—raw sprouts such as bean sprouts, alfalfa sprouts, and more are a surprisingly common source of foodborne illnesses, particularly in years past. The CDC includes raw alfalfa and bean sprouts among the foods most likely to cause food poisoning, and sprouts were investigated as the source of a foodborne outbreak once in 2018 (for Salmonella) and three times in 2016 (twice for Salmonella and once for E. coli).
A contaminated sprout–caused outbreak occurred every year between 1995 and 2011 in the U.S., according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’s FoodSafety.gov. Sprouts were first recognized as a potential source of food poisoning in the mid-1990s and have caused several outbreaks in the last two decades—30 between 1998 and 2011 alone. So sprouts have a proven history of involvement in foodborne outbreaks, but what makes these seemingly benign garnishes so potentially dangerous?
Sprouts grow best in warm, humid conditions, which can also lead to the growth of germs; when sprouts are eaten raw (as they often are, especially in sprouts sandwiches), it can lead to food poisoning from Salmonella, E. coli, or Listeria. Cooking sprouts thoroughly can kill any harmful germs, reducing the chance of food poisoning, though sprouts are rarely served that way.
Plus, “Contamination in these cases generally tends to come from the seeds,” says Travers Anderson, R&D Group Manager at Clorox.
According to Anderson, sprouts are grown hydroponically in clear water with seeds brought in from fields; if the seeds are contaminated, the sprouts grown from them will be contaminated, too (yes, even if you grow your own sprouts at home from purchased seeds).
What can be done about this common cause of foodborne illness?
First, Clorox is working with the EPA to develop a protocol for treating alfalfa sprout contamination by sanitizing seeds in a dilute bleach solution before rinsing them with water and using them to grow sprouts. This can help prevent the growth of potentially contaminated sprouts; but if you’re still concerned, there’s an easy step you can take at home, as well.
“If you’re really concerned about some kind of contamination issue, you can create a very dilute bleach solution that you can rinse your fruits, your veggies, your sprouts, anything like that in,” Anderson says. “You can look on [a Clorox bleach] label and find the instructions for how to do that.”
If you do choose to play it safe with your raw sprouts, you’re not the only one—dilute bleach solutions are often used to sanitize fruits and vegetables.
“It’s a practice that’s used all through the agriculture industry to make sure your food is safe,” says Naymesh Patel, vice president of R&D at Clorox.
So there you have it—steps are being taken to make sprouts safer for everyone, but there are things you can do at home to also make sprouts safer. If you’re dining out and are concerned about the potential of getting sick from sprouts (which is unlikely but possible), carefully consider what you’re ordering. If you’re immunocompromised or especially cautious, you might want to order something else.