Evidence is emerging that sprouted seeds could present an unacceptable risk to human health unless effective control measures such as irradiation can be used to make them safer.
As officials in Brussels meet this week to discuss the introduction of new control measures to prevent a repeat of last year’s E.coli O104 outbreak in Germany and France, food safety experts have questioned the effectiveness of the measures proposed.
Last November, the European Food Safety Authority stated that ready-to-eat sprouted seeds presented a food safety concern due to their potential for contamination. This followed the E.coli O104 outbreaks last year, which began with one in Germany in May involving 3,000 cases and over 30 deaths and a subsequent outbreak in France in June. Both incidents were linked to supplies of Egyptian fenugreek seeds.
The next outbreak
At a meeting of the Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food (ACMSF), which advises the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA), in London last week several members and other experts also questioned the safety of sprouted seeds. Dr Norman Simmons, a former ACMSF member said after the meeting: “There is no doubt about it, sprouted seeds are a risk … nothing can be done to ensure the seeds are safe.” He added: “I wouldn’t be surprised if the next outbreak is even bigger.”
The meeting this Thursday (January 26) of experts, including the FSA, from EU Member States will discuss various control measures that might be introduced to improve sprouted seed safety. They include sourcing seeds only from approved establishments; insisting that potable (drinking quality) water is used for irrigation and cleaning; one-up-one down traceability of seeds; the use of microbiological testing for common bacteria before products can be released to market; and rules governing the frequency of sampling.
The EU “will move quite quickly on this,” said the FSA’s head of hygiene and microbiology Liz Redmond.
Several ACMSF members and the FSA’s chief scientist, who was also present at the meeting, asked whether – if a change in EU law would permit it – irradiation of seeds might be used to kill of potentially harmful pathogens. However, it is not clear whether irradiation would make seeds sterile and therefore unable to germinate.
In seeking advice from the ACMSF, Wadge said: “Should we be pushing in Brussels for irradiation?” The ACMSF agreed to set up a working group to consider more detailed advice it could offer the FSA in advance of the meeting this Thursday.
ACMSF member Roy Betts, head of microbiology at Campden BRI , expressed concern about the use of microbiological analysis as a control measure. “I get nervous when we go to microbiological criteria in any detail: it’s not a control measure,” he said, since it is not good at picking up low levels of contamination.
In the UK, the Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) has set up a small working group of stakeholders, including the FSA, to develop guidance on the hygienic sourcing, production and safe handling of sprouted seeds.
FPC chief executive Nigel Jenny said: “Given that the UK industry is developing constructive and robust guidance in conjunction with the FSA, we would hope that is more than adequate to meet the industry’s, customers’ and consumers’ concerns.”
Jenny expected this guidance to be available in “weeks rather than months”. Jenny also doubted the viability of using irradiation as a control measure on scientific and cost grounds.
While the FSA currently issues advice to consumers about the dangers of eating sprouted seeds, which can be a particular risk to certain groups of people – notably adult women – this is less stringent than the advice given in Germany which advises those with weak immune systems to cook sprouted seeds before eating them.