In late January there were reports of Salmonella outbreaks in three states related to sprouts, specifically those found on sandwiches prepared at certain Jimmy John’s sandwich shops. Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time. There have been multiple incidences of foodborne illness related to sprouts served at Jimmy John’s over the last five years. And it’s not unique to the famous sandwich chain—the FDA reports that between 1996-2016, there were “46 reported outbreaks associated with sprouts, accounting for 2,474 illnesses and 187 hospitalizations.” (1)
Sprouts (most commonly sold as clover, bean, or alfalfa sprouts) have many health benefits, but those benefits might not outweigh the food safety risks associated with sprouts. Outbreaks related to sprouts often affect younger, health-conscious people. Why are sprouts an issue, and is there is anything you can do to enjoy them safely?
Sprouts are at risk because of the way they are grown—the warm, moist, nutrient-rich soil is not only great for growing sprouts, it’s great for growing bacteria such as Salmonella and E. Coli. The sprout’s seed is where the bacteria takes root, and once it’s there, it’s difficult to eliminate. The FDA has worked with sprout farmers to help develop procedures to decontaminate sprouts, but at this time, nothing has been shown to be 100% effective. Homegrown sprouts are at the same risk as those grown on larger farms.
Consuming raw sprouts is a risky practice for anyone, but it can be particularly troublesome for pregnant women, children, the elderly, or anyone with a compromised immune system. For these groups, it’s best to avoid them and select a different green vegetable. Or you can ask to have the sprouts cooked thoroughly before eating; however, remember that just warming them or blanching them isn’t enough to prevent illness. If you are ordering a sandwich or salad at a deli, ask them to hold the sprouts.