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Are Sprouts Safe to Eat?

I’m a big enthusiast of growing, eating and juicing sprouts, as it’s one of the best and cheapest super-foods that’s available. After one of my recent articles about benefits of juicing sprouts (and eating them), I received a question via email, asking me if sprouts were safe to eat.

The question was: “I no longer eat sprouts of any kind. There have been incidences of people becoming ill from their ingestion. Even sprouting your own can carry a risk as the bacteria can be in the seeds. Can you check into this issue? ”

Have sprouts been associated with outbreaks of foodborne illness?

Each year there are millions of cases of reported sicknesses and hundreds of deaths due to food-borne pathogens such as E. coli, salmonella, and Campylobacter. The outbreaks are always reported in regard to which food source it was associated with. Typically, it is meat products, which is far under-reported or minimized. But there are many cases that involve plant-based foods, such as melons, tomatoes, salad mix, spinach, peanuts, and …sprouts.

I did a quick search online and indeed, found that in the sprout industry, there have been cases of infections that have been associated with sprouts. In all, an estimated 2000 cases—-not in one year, but over the entire 40 year history of the commercial sprout industry. There has never been a case of salmonella from home-grown sprouts.

Do you want to know how many cases of foodborne illnesses per year altogether? 76 million.

That puts it into proper perspective, doesn’t it?

Even if we take into account that these numbers are inaccurate, as many cases go unreported, just comparing these two numbers: 2000 cases over 40 years, versus 76 million per year is telling me that eating sprouts may not be so risky after all.

What you need to know: The REAL source of contamination

Whenever you read a report about contaminated plant food (such as leafy greens, sprouts, tomatoes, or cantaloupes), what is never discussed in these reports is that nowhere on any of these foods can the pathogens causing the illness be found naturally.

So how does dangerous bacteria get on plant foods, such as sprouts, lettuce or spinach? Most likely factors are either from contamination at the seed level as plants grow out in manure-enriched fields and spread contamination across crops, or (as in the case of sprouts) in the sprouting facilities themselves.

When E. coli was found in salad mix and spinach, what was never mentioned was that it was found in these products because they were irrigated with water that was contaminated from a cattle operation a few miles away. The cattle business allowed its manure to be washed into a water system that eventually made its way to surrounding vegetable farms.

The vital piece of information that is routinely omitted in most reports is that all these pathogens that cause sickness actually come from animal sources.

For example, salmonella grows abundantly on chickens and other animals, so when they are killed and eaten for food, there is a high probability that salmonella may find its way to humans. This also occurs with E. coli, which is found in all animals.

Plants can only be contaminated by coming into contact with polluted water through irrigation, animal fertilizers, and using animal or human feces.

Vegetables and fruits can also become contaminated if placed in close proximity to or mixed with raw poultry, meat, or eggs, and unpasteurized milk, as all of these products have supply bacteria contaminants on them naturally.

6 Tips to Reduce Your Risk of Food-borne Disease

1. Grow your own sprouts. This will not only save you money, plus it’s a safer option. Buy seeds from a reputable source. The company that I buy them from has all seeds spot tested for Salmonella and E-coli. While this is not a fool-proof guarantee (nothing in life is), it has a 90% potential to catch contaminated seed.

2. Thoroughly rinse raw fruits and vegetables under running water before eating or preparing them, especially fruits that require peeling or cutting – like cantaloupe and other melons. Bacteria can be found on the outer rind or peel.

3. Wash your hands with soap and water before preparing food.

4. Ban all animal products from your kitchen and switch to plant-based (vegan) diet. I know this may sound radical to many of you, but all animal products, and especially raw animal flesh and secretions is a high risk food and can be a source of contamination in your own kitchen.

For example, A 2009 USDA study found that 87 percent of chicken carcasses tested positive for E. coli after chilling and just prior to packaging. One study found that 48 percent of all chicken samples tested positive for feces. Chicken feces may also contain roundworms, hair worms, tapeworms, insect larvae, fecally-excreted drugs and other chemicals, as well as the more normal constituents of feces — bile, undigested food, etc.

5. If you are unwilling to eliminate meat and dairy, make sure you separate your plant foods from animal flesh and secretions in your kitchen (using separate utensils, cutting board, etc; and washing these thoroughly in hot water or dishwasher), and cook these foods to the recommended temperature.

6. If you are a gardener and grow your own fruits and vegetables, switch to organic, manure-free gardening methods. Fertilizers such as blood and bone meal, slaughterhouse sludge, fish emulsion, and manures may carry dangerous diseases that breed in intensive animal production operations. Vegan-organic gardening is a safer, healthier way to grow our food, whereby soil fertility is maintained using vegetable compost, green manures, crop rotation, mulching, and other sustainable, ecological methods.


Foodborne Illness FAQ CDC – Center for Disease Control

To learn more about various diseases that come from animal agriculture, I highly recommend listening to this podcast: The “Lethal Gifts of Livestock” podcast. You can also find it on iTunes, episode 39.

Interesting reads: Fecal Contamination in Retail Chicken Products A Report from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine

There’s Poop in Our Chicken Meat! Huffington Post.

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