The E. coli outbreak in the Midwest linked to sprouts served at Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches raises questions about what the industry can do to make the commodity safer.
Jason’s Deli, for one, responded to the latest outbreak by announcing its 233 restaurants will leave sprouts off the menu indefinitely, pending Food and Drug Administration release of stronger criteria for their production.
“Obviously it’s a difficult time,” said Bob Sanderson, president of the International Sprout Growers Association. “Fortunately, people love sprouts.”
He said improved testing of seed and sprouts is part of the industry’s effort to solve its troubles. Both Sanderson and the Centers for Disease Control note that the testing recommended under current FDA guidelines, which date to 1999, would not identify E. coli O26, a less common strain of the pathogen.
“We have kits for the more familiar bacteria. For the newer organisms fast, affordable testing is still in development,” Sanderson said. “But that work is being done.”
The industry anticipates a new rule on sprouts from the FDA, but it may not be what some buyers expect.
“The customers really think the FDA will approve a sanitization method,” said Sanderson, who favors performance criteria over a specific process to ensure the safety of sprouts.
“The FDA is not set up to evaluate every claim for a treatment,” he said. “A rule is coming, but I’m hopeful that it will have performance criteria rather than a particular method.”
Various methods have been recommended or practiced over the years.
Sanderson also said improved sampling of runoff water is close to becoming a reality, and that the sprout association has a safety task force in conjunction with the Chicago-based Institute for Food Safety and Health working on treatment measures.
“It appears the sprout industry is following good manufacturing practices,” said Barry Eisenberg, vice president of food safety services at United Fresh Produce Association. “We know they’re working diligently on coming up with procedures. For whatever reason, they have not been totally successful.”
United Fresh represents no sprout growers, he said.
“But if they asked us to attend a meeting, we would participate,” Eisenberg said. “There are probably good ideas from other crops that we don’t mind sharing.”
Trevor Suslow, an extension research specialist at the University of California-Davis, said it’s critical for regulators, industry representatives and academics drafting the FDA rule on sprouts to address seeds.
“I am not sure it will include seed production,” said Suslow, whose research experience includes some sprout projects. “Based on an outline, they were starting at the seed distributor, which is not adequate to protect the public. I hope they’ll put this back in….It appears to be very difficult to keep seed that has some low level of contamination from being introduced into the sprout production stream.”
William Keene, senior epidemiologist at Oregon Public Health Services, said sprouts’ problems trace to how they’re produced.
“It’s a generic problem, not a this-guy-was-doing-something-wrong problem,” Keene said. “The conditions for generating sprouts commercially are almost like designing a process to grow bacteria. It’s wet, it’s not too cold. The sprouts grow luxuriantly and so do the bacteria.”
While the sprout industry has done a lot to reduce the risk to consumers, Keene said it is hard to give a one-word answer to the question of whether sprouts are viable and safe.
“It’s a personal decision,” he said. “How likely is it that you’ll get sick? One in a million? Maybe you’ve eaten sprouts for 20 years and never gotten sick. For some an illness is potentially life threatening, but most of the time it’s not that bad. It’s like crossing the street — you’re taking your life in your hand, but most of the time you don’t think about it.”