’Nothing can be done to ensure seeds are safe’ sprouted seeds pose an unacceptable risk to health

As officials in Brussels meet Jan. 26, 2012, to discuss the introduction of new control measures to prevent a repeat of last year’s E. coli O104 outbreak in Germany and France, food safety experts have questioned the effectiveness of the measures proposed.

At a meeting last week of the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF), which advises the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), Dr Norman Simmons, a former ACMSF member said after the meeting: “There is no doubt about it, sprouted seeds are a risk … nothing can be done to ensure the seeds are safe. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next outbreak is even bigger.”

Among the control measures up for discussion are:

• sourcing seeds only from approved establishments;
• ensure only potable (drinking quality) water is used for irrigation and cleaning; • one-up-one down traceability of seeds;
• the use of microbiological testing for common bacteria before products can be released to market; and,
• rules governing the frequency of sampling.

ACMSF member Roy Betts, head of microbiology at Campden BRI , expressed concern about the use of microbiological analysis as a control measure. “I get nervous when we go to microbiological criteria in any detail: it’s not a control measure,” he said, since it is not good at picking up low levels of contamination.

What’s missing in all this is the lack of clear warnings to consumers, and any kind of verification. Guidelines and rules are nice but what if no one pays attention?