Solving sprout outbreaks

April 3, 2012

As a sprout industry task force has been taking steps to address E. coli outbreaks, the FDA has moved to establish a new Sprouts Safety Alliance.

Bob Sanderson, president of the International Sprout Growers Association and a grower in Massachusetts, said the Chicago-based Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute for Food Safety and Health (IFSH) has hosted a sprout safety task force for about the last two years.

“It started in response to the fact that most of the standard audits that everybody has to do don’t necessarily cover the important details of each commodity,” Sanderson said. “We thought we needed an audit that looked more specifically at the critical safety requirements of sprouts.”

Now IFSH has been awarded a $100,000 grant to fund FDA’s Sprouts Safety Alliance. FDA has charged the alliance with developing best practices for growing and handling sprouts. It will be modeled after other FDA alliances for seafood,juice and produce.

Meanwhile, the task force had conducted a pilot audit in the wake of recent E. coli outbreaks that sickened some patrons of Jimmy John’s restaurants. Brian Gorman, owner of Chicago Indoor Garden, volunteered his site.

“For a number of years, we had a different organization do our audits and we weren’t necessarily nuts about a lot of their questions because it wasn’t relevant to sprout growers,” he said. “The idea is that you have something specifically for sprout growers.”

Gorman said the pilot audit geared specifically to his industry was helpful. For example, he said, the audit emphasized the importance of buying seed from suppliers who have tested it first.

Chicago Indoor Garden grows sprouts hydroponically. Gorman said it was already his practice to take and test water samples with every harvest.

“Something else we have or that all sprout growers are supposed to have is a hold-and- release policy,” he said. “So if there was an issue, let’s say you get a positive … they call and are going to retest it because sometimes things get contaminated in the lab. It always comes back negative, but if it was positive, you would not release any of the product to your customers.”

Before the formation of the alliance was announced, Sanderson said the task force’s progress was being slowed because it needed more direction from FDA. He said it’s generally believed that most problems with sprouts result from tainted seed, and that the FDA’s current guidance on seed sanitizing doesn’t take into account treatments that have been identified as promising.

“There’s also some question about testing methods,” he said.

Ton-Jen Fu, Ph.D., FDA research chemical engineer who works at IFSH’s National Center for Food Safety and Technology and has been involved in the task force, said an audit checklist is being developed as a result of the task force’s work.

“It’s still in the final stage,” she said.

Robert Brackett, IFSH director, expects the task force’s focus on best practices to continue as the alliance gears up.

“It’s the alliance’s role to communicate and to educate,” he said. “The task force is really to develop new and better practices and the technologies that could work.”

Photo: Courtesy Barbara Sanderson



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