|JAMA Unnecessarily Scares Consumers With 'Old News'
Incidence of Salmonellosis from Alfalfa Sprouts is Minuscule in Comparison to Other Foods
By Steve Meyerowitz,
In its January
10th 1999 issue, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) described two
incidences of Salmonella contamination from alfalfa sprouts that took place in 1995. Many
regulations and industry corrections have taken place since then which have made sprouts
safe. While it is true that alfalfa sprouts pose a risk because they are not sterilized by
cooking, historically, the numbers of incidents and numbers of people affected by sprout
borne salmonellosis run far below the risk of common foods such as meat, poultry, milk and
In its 40 year
history, only twelve incidents of bacterial infection in sprouts have been recorded, and
nine of them came from the same seed source. The contaminated seed was imported from the
Netherlands. All alfalfa seeds since then have been subject to strict scrutiny and
purification by both importers and growers. The sprout industry today is in full
compliance with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the US Department of Agriculture
(USDA). The FDA has since reclassified sprouters from 'farmers' to 'food processors.' This
designation demands strict regulation of growers for eliminating potentially infectious
conditions throughout sprout growing and packaging. Currently, growers use a chlorination
process, similar to how the nation's water supplies are treated. It is approved by the CDC
for its safety and effectiveness. Growers are also researching alternative processes that
could achieve even better purification.
contamination, however, makes sensational news because:
a) Prior to 1995,
the tiny sprout industry was unknown to the CDC and USDA. Its discovery attracted
b) The USDA and
CDC took a greater interest in sprouts, because the growing conditions for seeds are also
favorable growing conditions for bacteria and because as a raw food, sprouts do not
benefit from sterilization by cooking. Common garden vegetable seeds are also subject to
these same risks.
c) Sprouts are
also newsworthy because it is a legendary health food. It is an irony for a health food to
be the cause of ill health.
industries, such as meat, poultry, and tobacco, the tiny $250 million dollar sprout
industry has no public relations firm or Washington lobbyists to defend itself. The
industry is woefully ineffective in telling its side of the story.
Balancing The Risks
to Public Health
outbreak is scary news. But in order to avoid a panic that propels a problem out of
proportion, we must understand its risks compared with other risks.
According to the
USDA, salmonella contamination from foods such as poultry, meat, eggs and fresh produce
sickens 4 million people annually in the U.S. Only 700 people reported salmonellosis in
the two 1995 sprout incidents described in the JAMA article. But the article estimates
that up to 20,000 people were probably affected.
According to the
FDA, 93% of all bacterial illnesses from human and animal pathogens come from meat,
poultry and dairy. While fatalities are rare, in 1995, the same year as the reported
sprout cases, the CDC documented 15 fatalities caused by reactions to foods such as
peanuts, milk, eggs and shellfish. Every year, there are an estimated 9,000 deaths and 81
million illnesses due to unsafe foods. (Wall Street Journal 8/21/98) There have never been
any fatalities from sprouts.
In 1997, Cox
Newspapers analyzed a USDA computerized database of meat and poultry inspection records
for 1996 and found 138,593 instances in which inspectors said food being prepared in
packing plants was "certain" to sicken consumers. The database was obtained
under the Freedom of Information Act.
The risks of
contracting salmonellosis from alfalfa sprouts is small and probably akin to the
proverbial analogy "getting hit by a car crossing the street." But there are
greater and more troubling infection risks threatening consumers today that are not even
food related. According to William Jarvis of the CDC, each year about 2 million people
acquire infections while under care in U.S. hospitals and nearly 90,000 die of them.
(Based on a 1998 survey of 265 U.S. hospitals)
Why Eat Sprouts
Sprouts are a
nutritionally concentrated, pesticide-free, locally grown, fresh produce available year
round. The National Cancer institute and the National Institutes of Health recommend
Americans eat 5 vegetable meals each day. With the increasing cost of fresh produce, the
diminishing acreage of farmland, and the greater dependence on imported produce, sprouted
foods from local farmers have become a viable alternative source of nutritious, affordable
mini-vegetables. The anti-cancer benefits of sprouts were well documented by researchers
at Johns Hopkins University in August of 1997. 'Kitchen gardening' is also a fun,
nutritious way for consumers to garden year round making families more self-sufficient and
saving on the grocery bill.
While the U.S.
food and water supply will never be completely free of harmful bacteria, eating alfalfa
sprouts is healthier and statistically safer than eating meat, dairy, eggs or poultry.
Despite the numbers, most Americans can have confidence that their food supply is safe. To
that end, sprout growers continue to comply with CDC and USDA regulations to ensure the
production of safe, healthy, and delicious sprouts.
How to Develop an 'Inner Defense' to Protect against Contaminated Food and Water. Steve
Meyerowitz is the author of Sprouts the Miracle Food and other books on diet and health.
He is not a commercial sprout grower. January 15, 1999
Sproutman Publications. PO Box 1100. Great Barrington, MA
01230. 413-528-5200x4. Fax 413-528-5201.
Sproutman@Sproutman.com Or go to Sproutman.com