Thursday, June 30, 2011


Outbreaks of foodborne illness from sprouted seeds are common. They have occurred since the 1970's, all over the world. The second largest outbreak in terms of illnesses caused, and the most vicious in terms of the seriousness of those illnesses, occurred this year in northern Germany. Even as the Hamburg-Germany outbreak gradually winds down, new ones have started in France and the United States.

How do sprouts become so risky? Most of the time it is suspected that the actual seeds were the cause. That is, it wasn't contaminated equipment at the sprout farm, or water used during sprout germination, or some disease-carrying worker on the farm or at the packing plant. This means that the sprout grower was also an innocent victim. The bacteria were there already when the seeds were purchased. They had picked up these bacteria from their own growing environment.

However, the chances are that bacteria will be present in fairly low numbers in the seeds themselves. The dry conditions of an ungerminated seed are not ideal for the rapid multiplication of bacteria. But all this changes when the seeds are moistened during pre-germination. Multiplication speeds up even more in the few days during which the seeds germinate into sprouts. The bacteria happily take advantage of all those great nutrients in the seeds and the sprouts and multiply and multiply.

Whereas one teaspoon of seeds may just have contained a hundred or so E.coli, Salmonella, Listeria or other bacteria, after germination, there can turn into a million or more. Those few in the dry seeds may not have been enough to make someone ill, but the large numbers in the sprouted seeds are.

At present, we know of no way to make sprouts completely safe without destroying the seed's power to germinate (see next post). That's the sprout version of Catch 22.

To your good health,


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