For a related story on the FDA's Sprout Safety Alliance and its lack of progress, please see, "Slow start for FDA's sprout alliance."
Research has again proven that the 1999 government recommended process for sanitizing sprout seeds is ineffective.
However, there is agreement among many academics and growers about basic food safety measures they say would virtually eliminate the chance of pathogen-laden sprouts entering the supply chain.
“It is too late if the seeds are not clean,” said Hao Feng, a University of Illinois researcher in food and bioprocess engineering.
Feng and fellow researchers published results of three sprout studies since May 2011. All three reports stated what studies have been showing since 1999: The Food and Drug Administration’s recommended use of a chlorine wash, on the books since 1999, doesn’t kill 100% of pathogens on sprout seeds.
Feng’s team reported a wash of malic acid and thiamine dilauryl sulfate killed significantly more pathogens than chlorine washes. However, the research also showed the larger the amount of seeds, the less effective sanitization washes are.
“We have to re-evaluate current washing procedures and facilities,” Feng said. “Some engineering studies are needed to look into the hydrodynamics, mixing, sanitizer degradation, among other (factors).”
Rust Bob Rust, a sprout seed supplier and chairman of the seed safety committee of the FDA’s Sprout Safety Task Force, said he believes there are more effective washes than chlorine.
The task force recently drafted a proposal on sprout safety. It suggests the FDA should approve seven or eight other sanitization methods.
Specific sprout safety measures could be included in the FDA’s overdue fresh produce rule, which is expected this year.
Meanwhile, there are simple steps sprout growers can take to ensure they are shipping clean produce, said Feng and Rust, who is chief executive officer of Cookeville, Tenn.-based International Specialty Supply, a major sprout seed supplier.
Seed screening, water testing
Rust said ISS has been screening seeds since 1999. The company produces several million pounds of sprout seed annually.
The screening starts with visual inspections when seeds arrive. If a bag is damaged or shows any signs of animal presence, it is automatically discarded.
Rust said commercial sprout growers should do visual inspections, but many have told him they don’t. Clean seed can become contaminated during transportation or storage, with the FDA reporting that many pathogens can survive for months in dry storage conditions.
After visual screening for debris and signs of rodent or bird droppings, ISS conducts lab tests on seeds, their emerging sprouts and spent water after 48 hours.
He and the head of the International Sprout Growers Association, Bob Sanderson, who owns Jonathan’s Sprouts, Rochester, Mass., recommend sprout growers test spent water at the 48-hour point. They say that provides enough time to get results without delaying harvest or shipping.
Tips for growers
1. Screen seeds visually and with pathogen test kits.
2. Sanitize seeds before sprouting.
3. Test spent water 48 hours into sprouting.
4. Use Good Agricultural Practices.