Kroger just joined the ranks of Wal-Mart this week when it decided to stop selling fresh sprouts in all 2,425 of its stores because of their link to foodborne illnesses.
Since 1990, mass marketed versions of the crunchy green plants have caused almost 60 separate disease outbreaks, including a salmonella outbreak that killed 54 people in Germany, NPR reports.
FoodSafety.gov, the online resource of government food safety information, explains that the heat and humidity used to grow sprouts are also conducive to flourishing bacteria like E. coli, listeria and salmonella. The agency reports that it’s usually the sprout seeds themselves that harbor disease pathogens. Though there are proven techniques to kill those pathogens, none are guaranteed to eradicate bacteria completely, making it troublesome for retailers to be sure of the product’s safety.
Wal-Mart is unfortunately aware of this fact. The Huffington Post reports in 2011, the store sold salmonella-tainted sprouts that sickened 22 people across 10 different states. Retailers across the country were lucky that the bacteria didn’t spread any more than that; investigations revealed the salmonella was tied specifically to sprouts bearing the Caldwell Fresh Foods label, which were actually shipped to numerous retailers nationwide. A salmonella outbreak is always serious, but in this case, it could have been much worse. Not wanting to test the fates, Wal-Mart subsequently banned the produce from its stores shortly thereafter.
And now Kroger is following suit. The supermarket chain has already experienced two sprout recalls this year and seems to have taken the hint.
In a press release this week, Kroger’s vice president of food safety Payton Pruett explained that until sanitation techniques could guarantee sprouts' safety, it would remain off Kroger shelves indefinitely.
In recent years especially, as food recalls seem to have become the norm instead of the exception, the government has increasingly warned that children, senior citizens, pregnant women, and people with compromised immune systems should avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind.
But the tragedy is that in and of themselves, sprouts―when grown from pathogen-free seeds― are exceptionally nutritious and provide easily digestible and vital energy sources to the human body.
Barbara Sanderson, spokeswoman for the International Sprout Growers Association explained as much to FoodSafetyNews.org last year. Andderson said that otherwise healthy, nonpregnant adults should be eating sprouts for their nutritional value. She explained that though the FDA categorizes them as a “high-risk” food, the agency also puts leafy greens, tomatoes and even berries in its list of top foods that sicken people with foodborne bacteria.
In response, at-home growers may decide to simply grow their own at home, but according to NPR, the FDA warns that methods of cleaning seeds, like soaking them in chlorine and bleach, are not entirely effective. Instead, the agency recommends cooking sprouts completely before eating them.
According to the United States Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service, 48,000 people fall ill due to foodborne illnesses annually, of which 3,000 result in death. It's unfortunately an issue that affects us all.
Our rapidly evolving food system, and the complications arising from it, are certainly making “sound” consumer choices all the more elusive. As time goes on, the questions become less about which side is "right" and more about what are you, the consumer, willing to risk?
Would sprouts grown in your home and then cooked thoroughly make you feel better about their safety? Or are you done with sprouts for the time being?