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Sprouts, including mung beans and alfalfa sprouts, have become a common food item in grocery stores, salad bars and restaurant dishes across Canada. As the popularity of sprouts increases, so does the potential for sprout-related illnesses. Because most cases of foodborne illness go unreported, the actual numbers of illnesses resulting from eating sprouts in the Canadian population is unknown. Health Canada is taking action on several fronts to help reduce the risk of illnesses related to sprouts.
Worldwide, at least 40 outbreaks of foodborne illnesses have been linked to sprouts since 1973. In most instances, the illnesses were caused by harmful bacteria such as Escherichia coli (E. coli) or Salmonella.
Since 1996, raw alfalfa sprouts and mung bean sprouts contaminated with Salmonella have been linked to a number of outbreaks in British Columbia, Quebec, Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta, as well as in the United States. The largest outbreak in Canada was in the fall of 2005, when more than 648 cases of salmonellosis were reported in Ontario.
Worldwide, the largest outbreak linked to sprouts took place in Japan in 1996, when 6,000 people got sick and 17 died after eating radish sprouts contaminated with E. coli. This type of bacteria was also implicated in outbreaks involving sprouted seeds in several US states between 1997 and 2004. In June 2011 an E. coli outbreak linked to sprouts, centered in Germany, resulted in more than 47 deaths and several thousand infections.
Scientists believe that the most likely source of contamination is the seeds that are used to grow the sprouts. Seeds may become contaminated by animal manure in the field or during storage, and the conditions required to grow sprouts (like warmth and humidity) are ideal for the rapid growth of bacteria. Poor hygienic practices in the production of sprouts have also caused some sprout-related outbreaks of foodborne illness in the past.
Most sprouts, including alfalfa sprouts, can only be eaten raw. This means they are not exposed to temperatures high enough to kill bacteria that may be present. Some sprouts, like mung bean sprouts, can also be eaten cooked. To ensure that bacteria are destroyed, these sprouts should be cooked thoroughly. An outbreak of salmonellosis in Ontario in 2005 was linked to the consumption of raw and lightly-cooked mung bean sprouts, like those found in some stir-fry dishes.
Anyone who eats raw sprouts or lightly cooked mung bean sprouts is at risk for exposure to harmful bacteria such as E. coli or Salmonella. However, the risk of serious health effects is greatest for young children, seniors and people with weak immune systems.
The symptoms of E. coli infection can include stomach cramps, vomiting, fever and bloody diarrhea. Symptoms can start within one to 10 days of eating contaminated food. A small percentage of people can develop a serious condition called haemolytic uremic syndrome, and may need blood transfusions and kidney dialysis. Severe cases could cause permanent kidney damage or even death.
People infected with Salmonella bacteria may experience fever, headache, stomach cramps, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. These symptoms usually start six to 72 hours after eating contaminated food, and usually last for four to seven days. Severe cases may require hospitalization.
If you experience any of the symptoms of E. coli or Salmonella infection, you should contact your doctor immediately.
Groups that are at high risk for serious health effects from foodborne illness include:
High risk groups should avoid eating raw sprouts, especially alfalfa sprouts and mung bean sprouts. Be sure to check for the presence of sprouts in salads, sandwiches and soups you buy in restaurants and delicatessens. In addition, you should also avoid eating cooked bean sprouts found in stir-fries or soups, unless you know that the sprouts have been thoroughly cooked.
If you are a healthy adult and want to eat sprouts, you can reduce your risk by taking the following precautions:
Health Canada is working with industry representatives, public health officials, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and other stakeholders to implement safer growing methods for sprouts. Some of the steps taken to date include:
Health Canada also warns consumers about the risks of eating sprouts and advises the public on steps that can be taken to reduce the risk of contracting sprout-related illnesses.
You can also call toll free at 1-866-225-0709 or TTY at 1-800-267-1245*
Updated: August 2011
Original: July 2002
ęHer Majesty the Queen in Right of Canada, represented by the Minister of Health, 2011