Now that German officials have pinpointed bean sprouts from an organic German farm as the culprit in a deadly E coli outbreak, what does that say about the safety of growing, or eating sprouts?
The outbreak sickened more than 3,700 and killed 40 people.
Sprouts need warm and humid conditions to grow — the same conditions where bugs like E. coli and salmonella thrive.
Remember when you could get alfalfa sprouts on your sandwich at Subway? Many sandwich shops and salad bars stopped serving sprouts about 15 years ago because several outbreaks of salmonella and E. coli were traced to contaminated sprouts. In fact, since 1996, there was have been at least 30 reported outbreaks of food-borne illness associated with different types of raw and lightly cooked sprouts.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends cooking sprouts thoroughly before eating in order to kill any bacteria. That's fine if you're eating a stir-fry. But if it's a sandwich or a salad where you want something fresh with a bit of a crunchy texture, cooking kind of defeats the purpose.
Sprouts were big during the budding health-food movement of the 1960s, right up there with granola, raw honey, brown rice and yogurt.
Lots of people grow their own sprouts today. Many members of the LDS Church store supplies of whole wheat, and sprouting is something you can do with some of that wheat besides baking bread. But even when you're growing your own sprouts, you need to be careful to avoid contamination.
Mountain Valley Seed Co., a Utah company with 30 years in business, sent out a media advisory of guidelines for safe sprouting in light of the German outbreak.
"Sprouts are tasty and extremely wholesome but, like any raw food, safety precautions should be taken as we are reminded by the recent outbreak in Germany," wrote owner Robb Baumann. "While the exact cause of the outbreak is yet to be determined, it is probable that one of the basic sprouting safety steps were missed."
The first step is to ensure that your supplies are clean. The quality of water you use should be just as sanitary as the quality of water you drink. You'll want to wash your sprouting vessel after each use, just like washing dishes after a meal.
You also need to make sure your seeds are bacteria-free to begin with.
As you sprout the seeds, washing your hands, washing the sprouts and properly drying the sprouts before storage can greatly mitigate any bacterial risks. Most of all use common sense. If something doesn't smell right or look right, don't eat it!
Safety steps that Baumann listed:
1. Water — It is absolutely necessary to have a clean water supply, if unsure, use a filter or bottled water.
2. Sprouting vessel — Whether using a jar, sprout tray or hemp bag, sterilize, or at least sanitize, all items that will come into contact with your seeds and sprouts.
Sterilizing is the safest option; simply boil items for 10 minutes. You can sanitize by using bleach or Star San sanitizer.
3. Seeds — The seeds can already be contaminated before you ever sprout them. Commercial sprout houses typically use a 2 percent hypochlorite solution for 10 minutes to treat their seeds, but at these levels this procedure is not recommended for the average home user. Mountain Valley uses the procedure recommended by UC Davis in publication 8151 (postharvest.ucdavis.edu/datastorefiles/234-412.pdf).
Heat 3 percent hydrogen peroxide (what you will typically find at the store) to 140 degrees F (60 degrees C). The temperature range is key to maximizing your ability to kill bacteria, but if you get it too hot, you will kill the seed (i.e. lower the germination).
Place the seeds in a small mesh strainer and lower them completely into the solution for five minutes, swirling every minute or so to ensure all seeds make contact with the peroxide.
Rinse seeds for a minute under room temperature water and discard peroxide solution.
4. Clean sprouting process. Wash your hands thoroughly every time you handle the seeds or sprouts. A bit of hand sanitizer after a good wash is not a bad idea either.
5. After soaking your seeds, skim off anything floating on the surface. Research has shown that these "floaters" may be more likely to cause problems.
6. No matter what sprouting method you use, rinse your seeds/sprouts frequently with clean water. At least twice a day is recommend, Baumann writes that he usually rinses three to four times a day.
7. Completely drain your seeds/sprouts after each rinse. Keeping the seeds/sprouts moist is necessary for germination, but standing water can lead to mold and bacteria..
8. As sprouts develop, use a clean fork to break up the sprouts before rinsing, as you rinse allow any seed hulls or other "floaters" to rinse out.
9. After your sprouts have developed, do a final rinse in a clean bowl, use a clean fork or your clean hands, to remove any final floaters or other non-sprout material.
10. Dry sprouts with a clean paper towel or use a fine mesh salad spinner to remove all excess water. Store in a clean bag or other sealed container in the refrigerator.
Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.