Sprouted seeds pose an unacceptable risk to health

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Food standards agency, European union, Fsa

Sprouted seeds could pose an unacceptable risk to human health unless effective control measures are used
Sprouted seeds could pose an unacceptable risk to human health unless effective control measures are used
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.

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Electron beam treatment of sprouted seeds

Posted by Sam V. Nablo, PhD.,

I have been interested in the continuing problems with the E.coli 0104 outbreaks in sprouts due to contaminated fenugreek seeds. Rick Pendrous's review of 23 Jan. 2012 provided a good update. His comments on the ACMSF (Advisory Committee on the Microbiological Safety of Food) advice to the FSA (Food Standards Agency), and Dr. Simmons statement that "...sprouted seeds are a risk...nothing can be done to ensure the seeds are safe..." moved me to offer the following:

For some years we have been interested in the application of low energy,ie <100 keV., electrons for the treatment of the pericarp of edible produce. During the activity here in the US some 10 years ago to develop a fast, dry, economical anti-microbial process for sprouted seed 'cleansing', we worked with the National Center for Food Safety and Technology (NCFST) in Chicago on the evaluation of this process. We also assessed its application for grain disinfection under USDA sponsorship. We did publish the work and details of the fluidized bed technique are available in U.S.Patent 5,801,387 (1Sept.,1998) entitled 'Method and Apparatus for the Electron Beam Treatment of Powders and Aggregates in Pneumatic Transfer. Our work succeeded in showing that the seed germ was not affected by surface irradiation of the seed if appropriate control of pericarp penetration with beam energy was exercised. We applied 6D doses to these products at transport speeds of up to 1000 m/min.

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Sprouts are really a SAFE wonder veggie !!

Posted by N. Ishikawa,

Sprouts have many wonderful qualities as a food ingredient. It is fundamentally a safe vegetable that can be grown in a hygienically controlled factory in a short amount of time, without the use of any agrochemicals and regardless of weather conditions. It is a truly wonderful vegetable that contains an abundance of functional substances and nutrition (generated in the process of sprouting) that are invaluable to health and dieting.
However, recent bad news throughout the world making "sprouts" into the culprit of all evils, has been an extremly unfortunate matter. Up to now, safety issues have been raised sporadically throughout the world (especially in the West) due to Salmonella contaminations and partial measures have been taken against them. Last year, a most tragic outbreak occurred in Europe due to pathogenic E.coli 0-104,believed to have been caused by sprouts of the fenugreek seed. After this incident, the safety of sprouts has become a large problem across the globe. It is most unfortunate that there has not been a thorough investigation into the sprouts that caused the problem and that no concrete and effective measure for improvement has been taken against it.
Specifically, I believe that it was a safety issue of raw material of fenugreek seeds imported from Egypt and/or an insufficient implementation of the HACCP system in the process from seed disinfection to distribution at the factory that grew them. The cause was not sprouts but a particular kind of sprout or management issue.
However, in the numerous comments that I have read, many have emphasized that "all sprouts are dangerous". This may be giving the wrong information about sprouts to many people in the world.
The Japanese have enjoyed of the highest average life expectancies in the world, but the production and consumption of sprouts per person in Japan also ranks among the highest in the world. Most of these sprouts are bean sprouts, with many growers throughout the nation, including large-scale factories producing up to 250t per day. The main production factories are hygienically controlled under the HACCP system that includes the disinfection of seeds and equipment. Furthermore, no incidents of outbreaks due to the contamination of pathogenic bacteria have been reported for the past 40 years.
Sprouts for raw consumption, such as alfalfa, broccoli and radish sprouts, have also been produced and consumed along with the popular bean sprouts. In terms of these ready-to-eat sprouts, there was an outbreak in 1996 due to radish (cress)sprouts cntaminated by pathogenic E-coli;0-157, instigated by a small-scale factory at which hygienic management was insufficient. This contamination was brought about by contaminated water from a neighboring pasture mixing in to the well water used at the growing factory.
At the time, with the cooperation of government institutions, a guidance was created for the safe production of radish sprouts, after which trust was regained in the sprout, and production quantities have increased. Now, no foodborne bacteria are detected from investigations by the government or research institutions.
Sprouts that are grown under the HACCP system and with facilities that pursue safety and quality are safe. I firmly believe that what is at fault for the safety issue is not the vegetable itself, but the problem on the human side of the production equation.

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Posted by Dr Sohair Gad Alla,

I think the use of ozone gas might be useful in the case of sprouting sterlisation.
With someone with experience in the field of food safety working for an accredited laboratory, there is much research now which speaks about that.

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