"AMA JOURNAL SCARES CONSUMERS WITH 'OLD NEWS'- Incidence of Salmonellosis from Sprouts is Not Significant in Comparaison to Other Foods
by Steve Meyerowitz
In its January 10th 1999 issue, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) described two incidences of Salmonella contamination from alfalfa sprouts that took place in 1995. The objective of the study was to identify the source of the outbreaks. Yes, scientific investigation takes time, but by reporting it now, JAMA gives the impression that this is current news and, as a result, has unnecessarily scared consumers away from this famous healthy food. Their reporting of a probable "20,000 affected" people when by their own admission there were only "133 reported cases," adds fuel to consumer fears. The problems highlighted in the report have since been corrected and today, in addition to being one the healthiest foods, sprouts are also one of the safest.
Since 1995, many new regulations and changes in the sprout industry have taken place to make sprouts safe. The two 1995 outbreaks were traced to the same source of contaminated seed imported from the Netherlands. Today, all sprouting seeds are subject to a strict screening and purification process and major importers and distributors offer a microbiological test certificate for their seeds. In order for sprouts to grow salmonella, it has to be present in the first place. This is an extremely rare occurrence. But in the unlikely event that the seed is tainted, growers regularly use an EPA approved chlorination process, similar to that of the nation’s water supply, to achieve a 99.8% reduction of salmonella and E. Coli contamination. Put another way, if a rare occurrence of tainted seed should occur, there would be only a 0.02% probability that any such bacteria could survive. And unlike our drinking water, there is no chlorine residue left in the edible sprouts. The environmentally conscious sprout industry is also researching non-chlorine pasteurization methods with the FDA at the National Center for Food Safety and Technology in Illinois. A new "Food Safety Seal of Approval," certified by independent third party auditors, will soon start to appear on sprout products. The sprout industry works closely and cooperatively with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The FDA has since reclassified sprouters from ‘farmers’ to ‘food processors.’ This designation makes strict demands on growers to eliminate potentially infectious conditions throughout the process of sprout growing and packaging. Growers are now inspected by state, federal and/or third party examiners.
Sprouts have made news because they were a previously undiscovered industry. The USDA, FDA and CDC also took notice because sprouts are a raw food not sterilized by cooking and the growing conditions for the seeds are also favorable for growing bacteria. It also makes news when a famous health food causes ill health. Unlike other industries such as meat and poultry which have dramatically higher rates of foodborne illness, the tiny $250 million dollar sprout industry has no public relations firms or lobbyists and is woefully ineffective in telling its side of the story.
Balancing The Risks to Public Health
A salmonella outbreak is scary news and any amount of salmonellosis is too much. But in order to avoid public panic, we need some perspective.
Every year, according to the CDC, 4 million people contract salmonellosis from poultry, meat, eggs, milk and fresh fruit and vegetables. In the last 40 years, there have been fewer than 2,000 cases—from all microbes—linked to sprouts (Calif. Dept. of Health). This, despite the fact that US sprout growers ship 1.4 billion four ounce servings of sprouts every year. While JAMA correctly points out that sprouts have a greater potential to harbor microbes because they are uncooked, this is the same risk posed by fresh produce. In a recent five year period, there were 41 outbreaks due to fresh produce, one of them, a 1989 shipment of cantaloupes from Mexico, caused 25,000 salmonellosis cases (CDC). In this same time, there were 195 outbreaks caused by meat and poultry and 178 by seafood. Yet, in its entire 40 year history, sprouts have had only 12 outbreaks—4 of them traced to same 1995 tainted seed.
According to the FDA, 93% of all bacterial illnesses from human and animal pathogens come from meat, poultry and dairy. While fatalities are rare, in 1995, the same year as the JAMA reported sprout cases, the CDC documented 15 fatalities caused by reactions to foods such as peanuts, milk, eggs and shellfish. There have never been any fatalities from sprouts.
In 1997, Cox Newspapers analyzed a USDA computerized database of meat and poultry inspection records for 1996 and found 138,593 instances in which inspectors said food being prepared in packing plants was "certain" to sicken consumers. The database was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
There are even greater and more troubling infection risks threatening the public today that are not from our food. According to William Jarvis of the CDC, each year about 2 million people acquire infections while under care in U.S. hospitals and nearly 90,000 die of them. (Based on a 1998 survey of 265 U.S. hospitals)
According to one CDC inspector who spoke on condition of anonymity, "The negative publicity this has generated in the press is out of proportion to the risk." Martha Roberts, deputy commissioner of food safety at the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, is concerned that consumers may deprive themselves of the benefits of fruits and vegetables in the wake of food scares. "Some people will even stop eating a fruit or vegetable if it’s associated with a reported illness. This is especially troubling because research strongly supports fruits and vegetables as essential parts of a healthy diet and one of the best ways to prevent cancer and chronic disease."
Why Eat Sprouts
The National Cancer Institute and the National Institutes of Health want us to eat 5 fresh foods per day. The benefits of eating fresh fruits and vegetables far outweigh the contamination risks. In a given year, getting hit by lightning (1.29 people per million) is more likely than contracting E. Coli (1.1 people per million) from meat, poultry, shellfish, milk, eggs and produce combined. Since produce represents the smallest risk of these foods (41 outbreaks in 5 years) and since sprouts represent an even smaller risk than produce (12 in 40 years), the benefits of eating sprouts dramatically, statistically and historically outweigh the contamination risks.
Sprouts are a nutritionally concentrated, pesticide-free, locally grown, fresh produce available year round. With the increasing cost of fresh produce, the diminishing acreage of farmland, and the greater dependence on imported produce, sprouted foods from local farmers have become a viable alternative source of nutritious, affordable mini-vegetables. The anti-cancer benefits of sprouts were well documented by researchers at Johns Hopkins University in August of 1997. ‘Kitchen gardening’ is also a fun, nutritious way for consumers to garden year round making families more self-sufficient and saving on the grocery bill.
The U.S. food and water supply will never be completely free of harmful bacteria. Nothing grown in nature is sterile. But most of the microorganisms found naturally on fresh foods are harmless. News stories are sometimes more alarming than the facts justify. Overall, Americans can have confidence that their food supply is safe. To this end, sprout growers are working diligently with the FDA and USDA to ensure that sprouts are not only one of the healthiest foods you can eat, but also one of the safest."
(C) Sproutman Publications. PO Box 1100. Great Barrington, MA 01230. 413-528-5200x4. Fax 413-528-5201.