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Environmental Health

Food Safety - Raw Seed Sprouts  Image of Alfalfa patch

The California Department of Health Services recognizes raw-seed sprouts to be a potentially hazardous food. Raw-seed sprouts have been shown to support the rapid and progressive growth of infectious microorganisms such as Salmonella spp. and Escherichia coli 0157:H7. Since 1995, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also recognized raw-seed sprouts as a source of foodborne illness in the United States. In addition, the FDA has listed raw-seed sprouts as a “Potentially Hazardous Food” in the 1999 Federal Model Food Code.

AlfalfaWho is most at risk?
Salmonella and E. coli 0157:H7 bacteria can affect everyone. However young children, the elderly and people with weak immune systems (e.g., pregnant women, people undergoing chemotherapy, AIDS patients, etc.) are most susceptible to complications from illness caused by Salmonella and E. coli 0157:H7.

What are the symptoms of Salmonella and E. coli 0157:H7 infection?
Although infections with Salmonella and E. coli O157 can cause serious illness, the illness is generally self-limiting in most healthy adults.

  • Salmonella can cause salmonellosis, an illness characterized by fever, stomach cramps and diarrhea. The illness can last as long as seven days and severe cases may require hospitalization.
  • E. coli 0157:H7 produces toxin in the body that causes illness characterized by stomach cramps, vomiting, fever and bloody diarrhea and can occur within two to 10 days of eating contaminated food. Infection can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome (HUS) which can cause acute kidney failure with resultant kidney failure or death in children, and equally serious complications in the elderly.

People who experience symptoms of salmonellosis or E. coli infection should contact their doctor immediately.

AlfalfaHow do sprouts become contaminated?
Public health scientists believe that the seeds used for sprouting are the most likely source of contamination. Salmonella or E. coli bacteria can lodge in tiny seed cracks and are difficult to eliminate. These bacteria can multiply during sprouting in warm, humid conditions. In most reported sprout-related outbreaks, the likely source of contamination was the seed. However, unsafe food practices have also contributed to the contamination of sprouts.

AlfalfaWhat is being done?
The sprout industry has been working in cooperation with government, academia, and other industry segments to enhance the safety of its product. These efforts have focused primarily on seed treatment strategies, good manufacturing practices, and sanitation.

AlfalfaWhat can consumers do? Image of Alfalfa field
As with many other foods, proper cooking kills bacteria. The risk of foodborne illness is significantly reduced when sprouts are cooked in soups, stir-fries and other dishes.

FYI: Alfalfa sprouts, the most common form of raw-seed sprouts available in the market place, have been the cause of most reported sprout-related foodborne illness outbreaks. Other types of sprouts that have also been implicated in reported sprout-related foodborne illness outbreaks are radish sprouts, clover sprouts, sunflower sprouts and mung bean sprouts.

AlfalfaWhat can retail facilities do to protect the public?
In order to minimize the contamination of sprouts due to unsafe food practices, retail food facility operators handling, storing or serving raw-seed sprouts should operate with the following guidelines:

  • Raw-seed sprouts shall be held under refrigeration at a temperature not to exceed 41 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • All operators handling raw-seed sprouts shall employ good personal hygiene practices. Examples of good personal hygiene are:
    • Hands shall be washed with warm water and soap for at least 20 seconds before and after handling sprouts.
    • Employees with open cuts, wounds or sores shall not handle sprouts unless the wound is bandaged and the hand is properly gloved.
    • Employees shall wear clean, outer garments, and hair restraints.
    • Ensure that raw-seed sprouts are crisp-looking with buds attached. Remove all musty smelling, dark, or slimy-looking sprouts at once.
  • To minimize bacterial growth, raw-seed sprouts should not be held in a display case equipped with automatic misters. Sprouts should be stored in a clean and dry environment.
  • All packaged raw-seed sprouts must be labeled “Perishable- keep refrigerated”. The label must also contain the following information: common name, net weight, or numerical count; name and place of business where manufactured.

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