Are Sprouts Safe to Eat? Here's How to Avoid Food Poisoning

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. Usually, we picture meat or eggs--especially the latter for Salmonella—but plenty of other foods can cause foodborne illnesses. Think potato salad, some fruits, and, surprisingly, raw sprouts.

What Sprouts Cause Food Poisoning?

In fact, the CDC includes raw alfalfa and bean sprouts among the foods most likely to cause food poisoning, and sprouts have been investigated as the source of past foodborne outbreaks of Salmonella and E. coli.

According to the FDA, since 1997, the FDA has investigated over 50 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with contaminated sprouts, which resulted in more than 2,600 cases of illness. We know sprouts have a history of involvement in foodborne outbreaks, but what makes these seemingly benign garnishes so potentially dangerous?

Why Are Sprouts Dangerous?

Sprouts grow best in warm, humid conditions, which can also lead to the growth of germs; when they 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?

How to Prevent Food Poisoning

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. If you're still concerned, there's an easy step you can take at home, as well. "You can create a very dilute bleach solution for rinsing your fruits, your veggies, your sprouts, anything like that," Anderson says. "You can look on [a Clorox bleach] label and find the instructions for how to do that."

If you 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. However, the CDC and FDA recommend washing produce in just water if you're cleaning it yourself at home.

If you're dining out and concerned about the potential risk of getting sick (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.

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