What is in this article?:
- Deadly E. coli outbreak in Germany a warning
- Growing pathogens
- There are important lessons to be learned in the United States from the recent eruption of foodborne illness in Germany — which has turned out to be the deadliest E. coli outbreak ever.
The process used to germinate seeds is ideal for growing pathogens, LaBorde added. "Abundant nutrients are present, along with high levels of moisture -- and the warm temperatures needed for the sprouting process help to ensure survival and growth of bacteria," he said.
"Mishandling of sprouts during production, packing or distribution has rarely been implicated as the source of sprout contamination. However, bacteria already present in the sprouting seed can continue to thrive if proper food-handling techniques are not practiced during harvest, processing and preparation."
In the United States, the seeds usually are pre-treated with concentrated bleach solutions, and wash water that flows through the sprouts is collected and tested for bacteria such as E. coli, LaBorde explained.
"Perhaps that has not been done in Germany," he said. "Increasingly in this country, we are testing irrigation water and wash water for contamination. There typically is a lot more surveillance here."
LaBorde noted that increasing government testing and regulation is controversial in some circles because it adds costs and makes food more expensive, but politics and food safety aren't compatible when people start getting sick due to foodborne illness.
"There was all sorts of hysteria before the new federal food-safety law came out about how small farmers would be unable to come up with new systems to handle the testing and reporting it required -- record keeping was a real concern," he said.
"And so there were some exceptions put into the bill that exempted growers with less than $500,000 in sales who sell direct to consumers or food stores."
But regulation is a moot point in the marketplace, LaBorde contended, because food safety has been pushed onto the buyers. Each buyer -- such as a huge supermarket chain -- has their own standards that they impose on producers, and they are getting tougher and tougher. Small farmers and huge operations alike must abide by them.
"The private companies are way ahead of the government, and many now are requiring a third-party inspection of produce," he said. "There are no politics in the private food industry -- it is the bottom line that drives things.
"The large grocery store companies have simply decided they don't want to deal with multimillion-dollar lawsuits against them involving contaminated foods. So they are requiring suppliers to put into place processes, tests and requirements -- such as produce being GAPs certified -- that guard against pathogens being present in their products."
But LaBorde advises people to be aware that sprouts are just inherently more risky. "Even the Food and Drug Administration has said you can soak sprouts in bleach and still not kill every pathogen," he said.
"You can't reverse contamination, and the way sprouts are grown, if there is even the smallest amount of contamination present, it can multiply greatly and make people sick."