Keep Off the Sprouts

Hugh Pennington

'It's the sprouts,' the head of the Federal Robert Koch Institute in Berlin, Reinhard Burger, announced on 10 June. No surprise. Bean-sprout food-poisoning outbreaks occur regularly. The first big one was caused by Salmonella in the UK in 1988, when 143 people fell ill after eating contaminated mung bean sprouts. The outbreak in Sakai City in Japan in 1996 was caused by radish sprouts contaminated with E.coli O157. In the UK last year 231 people were infected with Salmonella from bean sprouts.

The majority of bean-sprout outbreak victims are women, probably because children and men are less likely to eat them. The outbreak can have been running for a while before it’s noticed. Investigations are often started only when there are an unusual number of cases caused by a rare strain of microbe. And in the majority of outbreaks the bacteria are not found on the suspect sprouts. The German outbreak has all these features. But there’s strong evidence that incriminates the sprouts as the vector for E.coli O104. A study of travel groups and club members who had eaten at a restaurant was crucial. Menus, receipts, information about ingredients and photographs showing food on plates were compared to identify what the sick had eaten but the well hadn’t. There is also a geographical relationship between case clusters and the distribution chain of sprouts from the producer in Lower Saxony.

Raw bean sprouts are a high-risk food because beans can have invisible contamination on them, and because the conditions used for sprouting – many hours in the warmth and wet – are optimal for the growth of bacteria. The only possible ways to reduce the risk are to use beans from a trustworthy grower who doesn’t get manure on his harvest, and decontamination. The best chemical decontaminant is bleach, but the highest permitted concentration won’t kill all the bugs. The only process that looks promising is irradiation. It’s hard to see organic sprouters going down this route.


  • 14 June 2011 at 11:46am
    nechaev says:
    "The only process that looks promising is irradiation"

    oddly enough this seems to be the exact same argument made by the Wall Street Journal columnist this weekend ["Europe's Organic Food Scare"].
    and of course inquiring minds might well ask: cui bono on that one....
    no doubt some mighty big profits to be made in large-scale food irradiation were that to become the latest hysteria-triggered fashion

    as a sprout eater of many decades standing may i suggest that the most promising solution is actually just some common sense. Sprout them yourself, or - with mung beans buy them prefab if you must but then cook them, slowly, over a low heat. And in the summer avoid the salad bar offerings of alfafa shoots, etc. (do we know if those sickened in Germany were made ill by sprouts they had bought in shops, or was it entirely via restaurant salad bars? These are generally great places to spread disease in the summer months...)

    I'm rather suspicious of any rush-to-irradiation. I see a lot of fruits imported from different lands in the supermarkets, and assume some of it has been irradiated. Namely the box of kiwis I bought in the beginning of March, hard as stones, which remain sitting here in the open at mid-June and are still far from ripe. Or those mangoes which never ripen but eventually just turn brown. I don't think that the wise men of science really know much about what happens to the nutritional value of food following radiation.

  • 14 June 2011 at 3:06pm
    klhoughton says:
    Uh, no. The sprouts carried the E. coli (which, apparently, Mr. Pennington does not know can only be originated by animals, not plants--or more likely, he does and is just being disingenuous to readers in referring to the sprouts as "the vector" and hoping people will confuse that with "root cause"), but they are NOT the source of it.

    That would be the animal offal (can't use the colloquial word [sh*t] on the LRB blog) that was use to fertilize the sprouts.

    Irradiation isn't the cure; not using unprocessed animal droppings as fertilizer is.

    Which, not coincidentally, would ameliorate nechaev's worries as well.

    It's sad to see the LRB try to pass off such "analysis." When did you become News of the World?

  • 14 June 2011 at 3:40pm
    Harry Stopes says:

  • 16 June 2011 at 12:12pm
    autodial says:
    A bit of ordure perhaps....