Thirteen people—nine in Washington and four in Oregon—have been infected with Salmonella Typhimurium from eating alfalfa sprouts. The illnesses have been traced back to Sprouters Northwest, Inc in Kent, WA, which has voluntarily recalled the product and stopped distributing it. Consumers are advised not to purchase or eat any Sprouters Northwest products containing alfalfa sprouts, and to discard or return any of the products they may have in their homes.
“Sprouts are often called a ‘stealth’ vehicle for infection because people aren’t always aware that they’re eating them,” said Seattle food borne illness attorney William Marler. “Sprouts are added to salads or sandwiches and hardly noticed. I always recommend that people think hard about eating sprouts, because they have a very poor history.
“According to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), sprouts are the number two vehicle for produce outbreaks, right behind leafy greens. And when the number of people who eat sprouts is factored in—far fewer than those who eat lettuce and other salad greens—it’s eye-opening.”
There are many ways that sprout contamination can occur. Animals grazing in alfalfa fields can contaminate the harvest, and then machinery used on a contaminated field can spread that contamination as other fields are harvested and processed. Once seeds from different fields are mixed, contamination can spread to other batches, and as seeds are ‘scarred’ or rubbed to crack them, bacteria can enter the seed itself.
The warm, moist environment used to grow sprouts is ideal for bacteria growth, and sprouts can play host to a number of different strains of Salmonella, as well as E. coli O157:H7. Bacteria on or in sprouts is difficult to detect, and most people do not wash or cook sprouts, which might kill or remove infectious bacteria.
“This is not the first time Sprouters Northwest has had to recall product,” continued Marler. “They recalled sprouts in 2004 after a number of people were infected by Salmonella. There are steps that can be taken to reduce the incidence of bacteria in a sprout product, and we need to find out what has gone wrong at this company and get it changed.”
Salmonella is a bacterium that causes one of the most common intestinal illnesses in the US: salmonellosis infection. 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. In mild cases of infection, symptoms subside in 5-7 days, but some can develop serious complications, so a doctor visit is recommended.