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Friday, June 10, 2011

Sprouts are telling us...

We learned definitively today that sprouts grown in Germany were the source of the European outbreak of E. coli O104:H4. Where do we go from here?

Some folks argue that the mechanism to cultivate sprouts commercially -- using high humidity and high temperature -- is inherently dangerous. In 2005 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reported that over 20% of produce-related foodborne illnesses for the previous 10 years were associated with consumption of raw or lightly cooked sprouts. That's something to keep in mind. I suspect that restaurants will reduce the use of sprouts -- or that patrons will order fewer dishes with sprouts (if mentioned on the menu). Either way, it's not a good time to be a sprout farmer.

But for the contrary opinion, visit the website of the International Sprout Growers Association, headquartered in Rhode Island. 

The questions, however, are broader than how to grow sprouts safely and whether to eat them:

  • To what extent does the widespread use of bovine antibiotics drive the development of increasingly deadly strains of E. coli?
  • What is the best medical treatment of hemolytic-uremic syndrome (HUS), the result of a severe E.coli infection? The mortality rate for HUS in this outbreak was 4%.
  • Although many of us are uncomfortable with mass-production agriculture in distant locales like the Imperial Valley of California, this outbreak arose from a small-volume organic producer located less than 40 miles from Hamburg, the epicenter of the outbreak. Can we trust small-volume organic producers -- or, for that matter, the produce sold at our local farmers markets?
  • Many Asians object to the western habit of eating "salads" composed mainly of uncooked produce. Although the historical reasons for the Asian perspective don't generally apply in the Western hemisphere, do they have a valid point?