Mind Your Sprouts

Most people are aware of sprouts well-deserved reputation as a health food. Sprouts are high in protein, a good source of vitamins C, A and K and contain a wide range of phytochemicals. But, sprouts also have a more troublesome reputation. In recent years, they have been found to be the culprit in multiple cases of food borne illnesses. In June, an outbreak of a deadly new strain of E coli bacteria, O104, sickened over 3,517 people in Germany, killing 39 of them.

European investigators have spent much of the past month trying to track down the source of the outbreak, which appears to have originated on an organic farm in Germany. However, there is still uncertainty as to the root cause; did the seeds that were sprouted carry the pathogen or was the water in which they were grown somehow contaminated? Also, as this is a new strain of E coli bacteria, investigators are also looking into whether person-to-person contact was another route of transmission. Given this history, sprouts offer a wonderful example of how important it is to be mindful about how your food is grown.

Do sprouts have the potential for causing food borne illness? Yes. But, this is also the case with a long list of foods previously implicated in outbreaks of food borne illness: spinach, peppers, ground beef, and peanuts among them. Is the answer to stop eating sprouts? For some people, it might be. But, for other people, this is not the route they want to take. They enjoy eating sprouts and appreciate the nutritional benefits they add to their diet. For sprout lovers, purchasing these veggies from a grower that has a comprehensive safety program in place gives them the peace of mind to keep sprouts a part of their healthy diet.

Jonathan’s Sprouts, which was profiled in the spring edition of Edible South Shore, is one such grower. This Rochester based company has had a stellar safety record for its entire thirty-five year history. They use a three-pronged approach to ensure the safety of the sprouts they sell.

  1. Jonathan’s sources their seeds carefully. Before the seeds are even purchased, they are tested for contamination by an independent lab.
  2. Once the seeds are delivered to Jonathan’s Sprouts, each batch is again tested for contamination by an outside lab.
  3. Before each crop is shipped, it is tested for salmonella and E. coli bacteria. An independent lab also conducts this testing.

The facility in which the sprouts are grown is also tested weekly for listeria contamination.

The testing program is expensive, costing the company upwards of $100,000 annually, and it definitely impacts the profit margin. But, like many small farmers, Barb and Bob Sanderson, the owners of Jonathan’s Sprouts would not have it any other way. Sprouts offer a wonderful example of how important it is to be mindful of how your food is grown.


Photos by Michael Hart