On February 26, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a nationwide notice to consumers that state public health officials had identified alfalfa sprouts as the source of a Salmonella outbreak. The CDC and FDA recommended that consumers not eat raw alfalfa sprouts, including sprout blends containing alfalfa sprouts, until further notice. By March 19, 186 cases had been identified in Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, and South Dakota. By mid-April, 42 additional individuals who had fallen ill with Salmonella Saintpaul infection and fit the outbreak case definition were identified in Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, and West Virginia.
A summary of the outbreak report was issued in the 7 May, 2009 MMWR, and is titled, “Outbreak of Salmonella Serotype Saintpaul Infections Associated with Eating Alfalfa Sprouts—United States, 2009.”
Sprouts have been tied to Salmonella outbreaks in the past, as the conditions needed to grow sprouts are also ideal for bacterial growth - a warm, wet environment. Cooking can kill the bacteria, but sprouts are usually eaten raw. Even when sprouts are washed, the bacteria can remain inside the water-dense food.
In 1999, the FDA announced new guidelines for the growing of sprouts, including using calcium hypochlorite treatment on seeds. This treatment exposes seeds to high levels of chlorine, killing bacteria, but leaving seeds unharmed. Since its introduction, manufacturers who consistently use this seed disinfectant treatment have not been implicated in foodborne illness outbreaks.
Salmonella is a bacterium that causes one of the most common intestinal illnesses in the US: salmonellosis infection. It can be present in uncooked or undercooked meat, poultry, eggs, or unpasturized dairy products, as well as other foods contaminated during harvest, production, or packaging. Symptoms of salmonellosis can begin 6 to 72 hours from consumption, and include diarrhea, abdominal cramps, fever, nausea, and/or vomiting. Dehydration is a concern, especially with the elderly, very young, or immune compromised.
“Anyone experiencing these symptoms in an area where an outbreak has been reported should seek medical attention,” advises food borne illness attorney William Marler. “You need to get appropriate care and take steps to make sure that you do not pass on the infection to others in your household.”
“In mild cases of salmonellosis, most symptoms of infection clear up within 5-7 days, although fatigue may follow for a week of two after the illness,” Marler continues, “But some strains of Salmonella cause more severe illnesses such as typhoid fever and bacteremia, so visit your doctor and make sure you know what you’re dealing with.”
Consumers should ask their healthcare providers to culture a stool sample. The culture will indicate if Salmonella is present and can assist in determining if the illness is part of a larger outbreak. Tips on avoiding Salmonella infection can be found on the website www.about-Salmonella.com, along with more detailed information on symptoms and treatment.