Sprouts still suck even if The Packer thinks the problem is new

I still don’t like sprouts. Never have. When I inadvertently eat them (like when someone sneaks them into my sandwich, often at a food safety conference) I find myself picking them out of my teeth.

The consumption of raw sprouts has been linked to over 40 outbreaks of foodborne illness internationally going back to 1988, including a whopping 648 who were sickened in a salmonella-in-sprouts outbreak in 2005 in Ontario (that’s in Canada).

So it’s somewhat baffling that one of the flagship publications of the produce industry, The Packer, would come out with an editorial today that opens with,

“Ensuring food safety in fresh produce has been the highest-profile concern for the industry since 2006’s outbreak linked to spinach.”

The 2006 E. coli O157:H7 in spinach was the 29th identified outbreak in leafy greens. Lots of people, including the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, started paying attention to microbial food safety concerns in fresh produce beginning with the E. coli O157:H7 outbreak in unpasteurized Odwalla cider in 1996.

The Packer then states, and they are apparently serious, “Though they haven’t garnered as much concern — yet — sprouts have been a recent and recurring source of illness.”

The first consumer warning about sprouts was issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in 1997. By July 9, 1999, FDA had advised all Americans to be aware of the risks associated with eating raw sprouts. Consumers were informed that the best way to control the risk was to not eat raw sprouts. The FDA stated that it would monitor the situation and take any further actions required to protect consumers.

In Jan. 2002, CDC issued ?a renewed call for Americans to avoid fresh alfalfa or other sprouts, and that people, particularly young children, the elderly and those with weak immune systems, should avoid eating raw sprouts. Dr. Mark Beatty of the CDC’s National Center for Infectious Diseases, said at the time, "Immunocompromised people could develop shock and die from the infection," although healthy people were at a lower risk for such complications.? Beatty was further quoted as saying that a 2001 outbreak in four western states revealed a "misconception" that sprouts were a healthy food. At least three of the people involved in the outbreak ate sprouts partly for health reasons.

?Because of continued outbreaks, the sprout industry, regulatory agencies, and the academic community pooled their efforts in the late 1990s to improve the safety of the product, including the implementation of good manufacturing practices, establishing guidelines for safe sprout production and chemical disinfection of seeds prior to sprouting.?

But are such guidelines actually being followed? And is anyone checking? ?In response to the 2001 outbreak, the California Department of Health Services and the California Department of Education recommended that schools stop serving uncooked sprouts to young children.

There is a lot of turnover at trade magazines, and it’s proving harder to find decent writers who know the history of a topic rather than tracers who regurgitate whatever is out there, but why would The Packer close with,

“Much has been learned about food safety best practices since the industry’s wakeup call with spinach.”

Best practices for fresh produce were first published by FDA in 1998. Trade rags do no one any favors with memories of convenience.