Sprouting Up a Diarrheal Infection

I like bean sprouts on my salads. They provide a low calorie way of adding variety to a salad. They are also thought to be good for you. Unfortunately, bean sprouts can bring to your salad plate some very unwelcome visitors. One presentaion at the International Conference on Emerging Infectious Diseases held in Atlanta, Georgia  reported that more and more people are getting intestinal infections from bean sprouts. Various bacterial infections have been reported and the most common are infections due to Salmonella sp., Bacillus cereus, and Escherichia coli O157:H7. Salmonella sp., Bacillus cereus, and Escherichia coli O157:H7 can cause nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Severe complications from Escherichia coli O157:H7 infections can result in kidney failure and sometimes even death. This happens more commonly in children and in the elderly. Janet Mohle-Boetani of the California Health Department said, “Sprouts are a hazardous food and should not be offered ubiquitously.” This is because many people are not aware of the risks they are taking when eating these sprouts in their salad. She recommends that sprouts should only be served if specifically asked for.

Janet Mohle-Boetani described five different outbreaks of Salmonella sp. and one Escherichia coli O157:H7 infection associated with alfalfa and alfalfa/clover sprouts. Three growers were implicated and 2 of the 3 growers did not follow federal and state guidelines for sanitizing the sprout seeds.

Other states have also reported bacterial infections following consumption of bean sprouts. An outbreak in Oregon and a multistate outbreak have been reported. Even if sprout growers are properly disinfecting their seeds their sprouts are infecting people. Mary E. Proctor suggests that new decontamination guidlines are needed.

Bean sprouts can be obtained from several different plants. The most common are from alfalfa, radish, and clover. Farmers grow alfalfa and clover to feed to their cattle. These fields are fertilized with manure from the cattle. The seeds from these alfalfa and clover fields are obtained by sprout farmers to grow up the sprouts. Bacteria from manure used to fertilize the alfalfa and clover fields remain with the seeds. When the seeds are planted the bacteria can increase in numbers to unsafe levels in the sprouts. Therefore, the seeds are disinfected with calcium hypochlorite before planting. This will kill most of the bacteria on the seeds. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to eliminate all the bacteria. Even with proper treatment people are getting sick from eating bean sprouts.

This problem is not just seen in the United States. The United Kingdom, Japan, Canada, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland have all reported cases of illness after consumption of bean sprouts.

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