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Kroger discontinues sprout sales due to food-safety fears

Sprout growers are likely to feel the effects of Kroger Co.’s decision to discontinue selling fresh sprouts as of Oct. 22 because of potential food-safety risks.

One of the leading U.S. food retailers, Kroger, announced Oct. 19 that it would no longer sell fresh sprouts in its supermarket chains because of the potential for a food-safety problem. Deliveries of sprouts into Kroger distribution centers and stores will be discontinued Oct. 22, the company said.

USA Today reported that Walmart made a similar decision in 2010.

Since 1996, tainted sprouts have been linked to at least 30 outbreaks, and in 2011 more than 4,000 people became ill and 50 died in a sprout-related outbreak in Europe.

"After a thorough, science-based review, we have decided to voluntarily discontinue selling fresh sprouts," Payton Pruett, Kroger's vice president of food safety, said in a press release. The company runs 2,425 stores in 31 states under brand names such as Kroger, City Market, Dillons, Jay C, Food 4 Less, Fred Meyer and Smith’s.

Mr. Pruett pointed to the risk of contaminated sprout seed as a basis for its decision.

"Testing and sanitizing by the growers and safe food handling by the consumer are the critical steps to protect against foodborne illness,” he said. “Sprouts present a unique challenge because pathogens may reside inside of the seeds where they cannot be reached by the currently available processing interventions. Out of an abundance of caution, the Kroger family of stores will no longer sell fresh sprouts or procure other foods that are produced on the same equipment as sprouts.”

Mr. Pruett said the company could revisit its policy when new technologies and practices show that farmers can consistently produce sprout seeds that do not internalize pathogens, and when sprout-processing environments can be enhanced for safety and cleanliness. 

Kroger’s decision to slam the door on sprout sales is likely to affect sprout growers and, most likely, stems from last year’s outbreak in Europe.

“The sprout industry is obviously very concerned about the Kroger news since it is having a significant impact on a number of producers, and may tend to increase concerns about sprouts in general,” said Bob Sanderson, president of the International Sprout Growers Association. 

He also referred to retailers' lingering concerns after watching last year's outbreak unfold. “Although this terrible outbreak involved a type of sprout that is not commercially grown in the U.S. and a type of pathogen that was previously largely unknown, it has significantly raised the bar in terms of required safety controls for sprout production,” he said.

Research and development into reliable, affordable methods for testing for pathogens is underway, and some sprouting-seed suppliers, as well as sprout producers, are already implementing expanded testing, and others in the industry will quickly follow as the technology becomes more widely available, he said. New seed treatment options are being explored that may be more effective than chlorine treatment, which has been the standard since the FDA issued its 14-year-old guidance for safe sprout production. The industry will implement new methods as they become validated and available, Mr. Sanderson said.

The Food & Drug Administration is trying to help the industry step up its food-safety controls.

In February, the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute for Food Safety & Health announced it was coordinating the Sprout Safety Alliance to help growers and producers identify best practices and develop training courses. FDA is funding the one-year project with a $100,000 grant.

Still, one consumer advocate said Kroger’s decision makes sense.

“Sprouts are unavoidably unsafe products, given the way they are grown and the absence of effective controls,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “So it just makes sense for retailers that want to protect their customers to stop selling them."