Monday, July 11, 2011

The Trouble With Sprouts

Image Credit: Jessica Reeder

Remember the carefree days when you thought you only had to worry about E. coli if you were eating hamburgers? Good times those were. The salad days. Well, after weeks of media speculation around the possible involvement of sprouts in Europe’s E. coli outbreak,* I’ve finally accepted what health officials have been saying for some time; sprouts – like raw fish and un-pasteurized milk – are a high-risk food. It’s been an unhappy realization. I love sprouts. They are awesome on everything; salads, sandwiches, breakfast tacos. But they are dangerous, more dangerous it turns out than other raw vegetables, such as the cucumbers that were originally blamed (but later exonerated) for this recent spell of food-borne illness.

Some Numbers For You:
According to the FDA, at least 30 outbreaks of food poisoning in the U.S. since 1996 have been linked to sprouts.† And those are just outbreaks – large scale incidents in which enough people get sick from the same foodstuffs to have any chance of tracing the illness to its source. But only 5% of food poisoning cases are associated with outbreaks, while the remaining 95% fall under the heading of “sporadic” cases in which only one or two people develop symptoms severe enough to report and the cause is never isolated as anything more specific than “something I ate…”

One of the worst E. coli outbreaks in recent history occurred in Japan in 1996. At least 10,000 people fell ill. The culprit? Tainted radish sprouts.

How Good Food Goes Bad
We’re all familiar enough with stories in which raw meat, which usually gets the cooties cooked out of it, contaminates raw vegetables that don’t receive the same protective heat sterilization. It’s why we keep raw chicken far from the salad bowl and thoroughly wash any cutlery than comes into contact with it. Contamination, of course, isn’t isolated to kitchens; it can also occur during various stages of agricultural production. But why should sprouts be any different from the other components of a salad? 

Image Credit: Little Blue Hen
Part of the problem is in how they are grown. Sprouts start as seeds, like other vegetables. However, instead of being planted in the ground, these seed are soaked in water and grown indoors in a warm, humid space. These are coincidentally the same conditions that favor bacterial growth. Under such optimal circumstances, even a single E. coli bacterium on a single seed can multiply into millions of disease-causing microorganisms, infecting an entire batch of delicious sprouts.

But how do the seeds get contaminated in the first place? Here we return to the same problem that causes the more familiar undercooked-hamburger-induced food poisoning – animals, namely cows. E. coli bacteria live in the intestinal tracts of these mammals and often find their way into food through the ubiquitous medium of cow crap. Cows are everywhere. Try as you might to keep the animals on one side of the farm and the plants on the other, run off from cattle is a constant threat to vegetable hygiene.

Making matters worse, cow manure is sometimes used as fertilizer. Call me an ignorant city person (you’d be right), but this does not sound like a good idea for growing any produce that might be consumed raw. Sprout seeds can also be contaminated by the water used to irrigate them (again, cow crap runoff). And, further down the line, they can pick up bacteria in the harvesting and shipping process. Remember, it only takes a teensy bit of bacteria tracked in areas containing meat or manure to multiply into an enormous problem once the sprouting commences.

Can Anything Be Done?
There’s a lot working against the production of pathogen-free sprouts. Even if they are grown on a farm that houses no livestock and uses no animal-derived fertilizer, sprout seeds may already have picked up enough harmful microorganisms to doom a truckload of produce. Seeds can be treated with a germ-killing chlorine solution before sprouting, but this is a recommendation rather than a requirement. Additionally, not everyone wants their produce soaked in nasty chemicals. Spouts and other vegetables are also tested for pathogens (as is meat), but clearly this process doesn’t catch every instance of bacterial contamination.

Further adding to the “you’re screwed” factor is the knowledge that the FDA currently only considers one strain of E. coli to be worthy of a recall – O157:H7, the bug responsible for the notorious 1993 Jack in the Box food poisoning fiasco.‡ This is not the same contaminant implicated in the current European outbreak. That honor goes to E. coli O104:H4, which is similarly deadly but rarer and hasn’t yet caused a high-profile poisoning in the U.S. Therefore the FDA does not mandate recalls if it should be found in U.S. food. No flaws in that perfect logic, right?

Editorial Tangent
So basically, sprouts are a scary biohazard but they’ve come to be this way largely as a result of our planet’s insistence on consuming enormous quantities of animal products. In my utopian society, in which livestock farming would account for a fraction of the food supply and be kept a good distance from plant-based agriculture, sprouts would be mostly safe (nothing in life is 100% safe, so you’ll have to live with some level of uncertainty).

I was aiming to avoid a lot of editorializing here about the issue of meat consumption, but while doing my research I ran into a Huffington Post piece ostensibly discussing the risks of eating sprouts and what might be done about them. The author writes,

Many people who love sprouts seem to be in denial, touting their taste and health benefits, and as I have learned in writing about the subject, they are having difficulty understanding the real risk.

Fine, but then he goes on to say,

But attacking the meat industry is not likely to solve the problem. We are not going to be able to ban meat or significantly reduce consumption. People love to eat meat and will not likely give it up in significant numbers. In fact, the trend is going the other way as meat consumption is rising around the world.

Really? So consumers of vegetables should take a good, hard look at their eating habits and wake up to reality, but meat eaters should continue full steam ahead in denial of the negative impact over-consumption of animal products can have on their bodies and, more importantly, the planet? Because people like meat?

I’m unmoved by this lazy, pessimistic reasoning. People have been fond of a lot of stupid and dangerous things over the years and we still try to dissuade them rather than throwing our hands up and saying, “What can we do? People like ______ (fill in the unhealthy habit of your choice).” And, yes, completely eliminating meat is unlikely and probably even unnecessarily rigid. But reducing consumption should be a priority.§

This summer’s headline-grabbing story of high fatality food poisoning seems to be subsiding, but the threat of a replay lingers. If the cause of the illness was sprouts and if these sprouts were contaminated with E. coli as seeds (the prime suspect is currently fenugreek seeds grown in Egypt) then those seeds are still out there, waiting to be sprouted. And our modern system of agriculture is convoluted enough (additional rant about factory farming averted) to make tracking them down pretty impossible. The best guess as to when Europe will be safe from this particular batch of tainted seeds is around their expiration date – about three years from now. 

* The going explanation for the outbreak is contaminated sprout seeds, but we may never know for sure. Evidence disappears quickly in cases against food-borne disease.

† This isn’t just E. coli. Salmonella and another animal-carried cooties account for a good chunk of food poisoning cases. But, for the sake of brevity, I’m focusing on E. coli here.

‡ And apparently even getting that strain listed as an “adulterant” was a major chore. The whole sordid story was recently chronicled in the book Poisoned, by Jeff Benedict. I’m itching to read this thing, if anyone has a copy they’d like to lend me.

§ Sorry, meat enthusiasts, I do try to be tolerant of your choices and, like I said, I would never ask you to give up meat altogether. I just want to keep cow feces off of my vegetables.

No comments:

Post a Comment