Bean sprouts. Crunchy, inexpensive, nutritious. But many grocery chains and restaurants no longer sell or use raw bean sprouts because they’re too often contaminated with disease-causing bacteria.
“There have been at least 35 outbreaks from contaminated sprouts since the mid-1990s,” says the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) food-safety expert Michelle Smith. The primary culprits: Salmonella and E. coli.
Seeds and beans need warm, humid conditions to sprout and grow, conditions that are ideal for the growth of these kind of bacteria.
The seed is typically the source of the bacteria.
Before sprouting, seeds can be contaminated by dirty water, animals, or improperly composted manure in the field or during distribution or storage. A single Salmonella bacterium on a seed can easily grow to an infectious dose during the two to seven days it takes for the seed to sprout, notes the FDA.
Are homegrown sprouts safer?
Not always. Even under sanitary conditions at home, if just a few harmful bacteria are present in or on the seed, they can grow to high levels during sprouting.
Can you rinse them clean?
“Rinsing the sprouts can remove dirt and some bacteria, but not the bacteria that have become firmly attached,” says Smith. “In the nutrient-rich, wet environment that sprouts are grown in, bacteria can enter root hairs and other plant structures where they can’t be washed off.”
The only way to kill any bacteria that may be present is to stir-fry, boil, or thoroughly cook sprouts in some other way.
FDA’s advice for consumers who want to avoid getting sick from contaminated sprouts:
- Those who should avoid eating raw bean sprouts of any kind: children, the elderly, pregnant women, and persons with weakened immune systems.
- Cook sprouts thoroughly to reduce the risk of illness. Cooking kills the harmful bacteria.
- Request that raw sprouts not be added to your food. If you purchase a sandwich or salad at a restaurant or delicatessen, check to make sure that raw sprouts have not been added.
The bottom line: If you eat sprouts, to be safe make sure they’re thoroughly cooked, not added to a dish at the end for crunch.
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