Dominating the news cycle this weekend was not so much about announcements of presidential bids and summer blockbusters, but an old terror rearing its ugly head – E. coli. E. coli, short for Escherichia coli, is a type of nasty bacterium present in the gut of humans and other animals, which often causes severe illness or sometimes death in humans and animals. A few years back E. coli made headlines time and time again for tainting everything from spinach to hamburger meat (the most famous being the 1993 Jack in the Box incident which sickened hundreds and killed 4 children) and is now in the news again with a fast moving E. coli outbreak in Europe (specifically in Germany), which has largely confounded health officials. Now a culprit has most likely been identified and it is, sad to say, a usual suspect – sprouts.
Sprouts had long been the epitome of heath food, and for good reason. Essentially a germinated seed, grain, or legume, a sprout is the transformation from potential nutrition to actualized nutrition. Consuming a sprout, whether it be a broccoli spout, an alfalfa spout, or a bean sprout, is kind of like eating a little plant, and provides a great deal of nutritional, digestive, and enzymatic properties that would be difficult to get in one package. Sprouted seeds, grains and legumes are said to break down the complex sugars responsible for intestinal gas and “bean belly.” In addition sprouted foods often contain an increased vitamin content, especially with B vitamins. But as healthy as sprouts may be, they are also a repeat offender when it comes to food borne illnesses and a designated high-risk food when it comes to E. coli. Why is this?
According to a New York Times Report, sprouts are grown from tiny seeds that are impossible to wash thoroughly enough to ensure that they are free of harmful bacteria. The seeds are sprouted in water that must be changed several times a day. This water, which is sometimes murky and brackish, is an excellent growth medium for bacteria. That is why FDA guidance says sprout producers ought to test the wash water for harmful bacteria, but sadly, they don’t always test with due diligence. Sprouts were found to be the cause of one of the most severe series of outbreaks of E. coli ever identified, in Japan in 1996. In those outbreaks about 10,000 people, many of them children, fell ill after eating food containing uncooked radish sprouts. This recent outbreak in Germany is considerably smaller, but no less serious, with more than 2,000 people struck ill and a death toll of 23, and this is still just the beginning. William E. Keene, a senior epidemiologist of the Oregon Public Health Division, who has investigated many outbreaks involving sprouts recently told The New York Times, “If you’re concerned about your risk of food-borne illness, don’t eat sprouts….They’re essentially a dangerous kind of food.”
While this particular E. coli outbreak is pretty much limited to Europe, history has shown us that it can certainly happen here, or anywhere. Knowing what you know about sprouts, do you keep your distance? Do you feel the recent E. coli outbreaks are exclusive to industrial agriculture, or do you think we should all be hyper vigilant? Are sprouts, for all of their robust nutritional properties, ultimately worth the risk?
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