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E. Coli Now in Our Alfalfa Sprouts?

In June and July 1997, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) received reports of more than 100 persons in Michigan and in Virginia who were infected with E. coli 0157:H7 from eating alfalfa sprouts. In each of the two outbreaks, health inspectors traced the contaminated sprouts to a single producer of sprouts--yet these investigators found no unsanitary sprout-manufacturing practices at either of the two facilities.

Both sprout producers, however, had obtained their seeds from a single source, and investigators determined that animal feces containing the E. coli bacteria had contaminated the seeds. The feces came from fields where the seeds had been harvested. Although this was the first known instance of E. coli contamination of alfalfa seeds, the CDC had previously investigated such contamination by Salmonella, and found that the organism in the seeds multiplied 10,000-fold during the sprouting process.

Although various methods of decontaminating alfalfa seeds have been tried, there is as yet no sure method. One must therefore assume that E. coli, Salmonella, or other harmful organisms in animal feces may contaminate alfalfa sprouts sold in the market. As with all produce, say the CDC, consumers should thoroughly rinse alfalfa sprouts before eating; however, the effectiveness of rinsing to reduce contamination is unknown. The advice, therefore, is that persons at higher risk for severe complications from E. coli or Salmonella infection, such as infants and young children, the elderly, pregnant women, or immunocompromised persons, can reduce their risk by not eating raw alfalfa sprouts.
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Publication:Medical Update
Date:Jan 1, 1998
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