“After 46 outbreaks of illness associated with raw sprouts in 20 years, new safety standards are long overdue,” said Fred Pritzker, a food safety lawyer who helps people harmed by contaminated sprouts and other food products.
The Food and Drug Administration issued, for public comment, a draft guidance to help sprout operations meet new standards that are designed to help keep this risky product free from contamination. The “new” requirements were set under the Produce Safety Rule that was mandated by the Food Safety Modernization Act of 2011.
Raw sprouts are a unique food safety risk because of two things: the seeds themselves can be contamianted, and the growing environment, which is damp and moist, is the perfect medium for bacterial growth. Covered sprout operations must make changes in their facilities.
They must test spent sprout irrigation water or, in some cases, sprouts that are in the process of growing; test the growing, harvesting, packing, and holding environment for the presence of Listeria monocytogenes bacteria; and take corrective actions when needed.
Provisions in this rule were built on previous guidances regarding sprouts, but guidance documents are not enforced. These provisions now carry the force and effect of law.
The largest operations must comply with all provisions by January 26, 2017. Small and very small businesses have respective compliance dates of January 26, 2018 and January 28, 2019.
The Raw Sprouts Food Poisoning Outbreaks
In the last 20 years, there have been 46 outbreaks associated with raw sprouts in this country. Those outbreaks caused 2,474 illnesses, 187 hospitalizations, and three deaths.
Just in the last two years, there have been five multistate food poisoning outbreaks linked to raw sprouts. They include:
- A Salmonella outbreak linked to recalled Sprouts Extraordinare raw alfalfa sprouts. Thirty-six people in nine states were infected with two different strains of Salmonella in that outbreak. It ended in October 2016.
- In February 2016, an outbreak of Shiga toxin-producing E. coli O157 associated with Jack & the Green Sprouts raw sprouts sickened 9 people in two states. Two people were hospitalized in that outbreak.
- Also in February 2016, 13 people in four states were infected with the outbreak strain of Salmonella Muenchen from alfalfa sprouts processed by Sweetwater Farms and other sprout growers. A common seed producer was the source of the bacteria in that outbreak.
- In 2014, bean sprouts made by Wholesome Soy Products sickened at least five people with Listeria monocytogenes infections. Two of those five people died.
- And in December 2014, 87 people in 11 states were sickened with Salmonella food poisoning after eating raw bean sprouts served at restaurants that were processed by Wonton Foods.
The Raw Sprouts Lawsuits
In 2012, noted food safety attorney Fred Pritzker called on all restaurants to pull raw sprouts from their menus, unless an explicit food safety warning is printed on the menus. A six-state outbreak of E. coli O26 on sandwiches sold at Jimmy John’s restaurant chain that sickened at least 29 people prompted this call.
Fred said, “raw sprouts are an unacceptable food poisoning risk, not only to vulnerable populations, but to consumers as a whole. Growers and restaurants need to be held accountable when the products they sell and produce make people seriously ill.”