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New Salmonella outbreak prompts sprout growers and FDA to review safety guidelines

by Joan Murphy | April 30, 2009
WASHINGTON -- Federal health officials warned consumers April 26 to avoid eating raw alfalfa sprouts after another Salmonella outbreak raised questions about the industry's compliance with the Fod & Drug Administration's 10- year-old safety guidelines.

A top FDA official said that the agency plans to take a close look at the 1999 Sprout Guidance to see if companies are adhering to the recommendations as FDA continues tracking down seed lots that may be responsible for the Salmonella outbreak that has sickened 31 people so far.

Sprout growers have been prodding FDA to improve the guidance for years, said Barbie Sanderson, who runs Rochester, MA-based Jonathan Sprouts Inc. and whose husband heads the International Sprout Growers Association. Now the industry is taking up the cause to write its own sprout-growing guidelines because there is confusion about how the guidance is interpreted.

State and third-party auditors that inspect sprout growers have not been provided enough guidance, and "this is where we need to shore up," she said. FDA officials have seen three outbreaks linked to sprouts recently, and one of those caused illnesses in March and matches the current Salmonella Saintpaul serotype, David Acheson, FDA's associate commissioner for foods, confirmed April 28.

The current outbreak caused the FDA and the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention to urge consumers April 26 to avoid eating raw alfalfa sprouts. Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah and West Virginia have all reported illnesses, and many the stricken people ate raw alfalfa sprouts either at restaurants or from retailers.

"This is not a problem with one sprouter," Dr. Acheson told The Produce News. "Some sprouters are not following FDA's guidelines."

Even if seeds are contaminated, FDA's guidance directs sprout companies to minimize the contamination. The 10-year-old guidance recommends that seeds be disinfected before sprouting, such as by using a solution with 20,000 parts per million of calcium hypochlorite with agitation for 15 minutes, and the water be regularly tested for Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 contamination.

The FDA plans to check to see if the 1999 guidance is scientifically accurate and whether the sprout industry is using the guidance, he said.

In some cases, sprout growers may not be adhering to the guidance, but in other cases the recommendation may be confusing or misleading, said Ms. Sanderson, who plans to meet with researchers at the National Center for Food Safety & Technology in Chicago to ask for assistance during the ISGA meeting in June.

In its warning, the FDA said that it has traced the contaminated raw alfalfa sprouts to various growers in multiple states, suggesting that the problem may be caused by tainted seeds and sprout growers who failed to follow the 1999 FDA Sprout Guidance.

The FDA urged sprout growers to be "vigilant" in following food-safety practices.

David Gombas, senior vice president for the United Fresh Produce Association, is also telling the sprout industry to "immediately redouble their efforts to ensure that all sprouts provided to consumers have been grown in strict compliance with preventive safety practices."

FDA's new advisory said that the agency is working with the sprout industry to "help identify which seeds and alfalfa sprouts are not connected with this contamination, so that this advisory can be changed as quickly as possible."