U.S. sprout growers claim product safetyAs the deadly E. coli outbreak in Europe brings more unwelcome scrutiny for sprout growers, U.S. representatives of the industry say they’re doing everything they can to provide a safe product.

Bob Sanderson, president of the Rhode Island-based International Sprout Growers Association, said he’s “quite confident” U.S. consumers should feel safe eating sprouts.

Sanderson, who also runs Jonathan’s Sprouts, an organic sprout company, said one of his customers temporarily suspended orders following the Europe outbreak.

Still, “most of our customers seem to have confidence in our products, and I hope we can continue to provide the public with this fresh and nutritious food,” Sanderson said.

As of June 17, the outbreak led to at least 39 deaths and more than 3,400 illnesses in Germany and 15 other countries, including the U.S.

U.S. sprout growers were already on the defensive after some of their products were implicated in recent illnesses, including a salmonella outbreak that beginning in November sickened 140 in 26 states and the District of Columbia. That outbreak was triggered by alfalfa sprouts served at the Jimmy John’s sandwich chain, according to U.S. regulators.

Another recall this year came from Sanderson’s company, after samples tested positive for salmonella. No illnesses were linked to that recall.

Dave Gombas, senior vice president for food safety and technology at Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said the U.S. Food and Drug Administration already advises at-risk consumers — the very young, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems — to avoid sprouts.

The FDA also addressed specific best practices for sprout growers in 1999 to minimize the risk of salmonella, listeria and E. coli.  

 One key part of the best practices is testing of irrigation water.

“(Growers) have the opportunity to test the irrigation water and use that to determine whether or not the sprouts are contaminated,” he said.

The FDA guidance to sprout growers goes as far as the science dictates, said Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer of Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association. He said it is up to each grower to make sure they are closely following that guidance.

“I think making sure growers know the source of the seed and making sure that they are using strong and stringent good agricultural practices plays a pretty important role in how successful you are going to be down the road.”

Critics say sprouts harbor dangerous bacteria that are difficult to eliminate through any cleaning process and shouldn’t be eaten by anyone. But U.S. sprout growers say their safety practices have improved substantially in recent years and that thorough testing reduces the chances of contaminated product reaching the food supply.

Most sprouts are grown in a controlled, indoor environment and, when handled properly, “are the safest produce on the grocery shelf,” said Bob Rust, who runs International Specialty Supply, a Cookeville, Tenn.-based supplier of sprout seeds and growing equipment.

Rust said his company tests every bag of seed before selling it to commercial growers.

Most U.S. growers, he said, “are well-trained in the production of safe sprouts, utilize some of the most stringent safety procedures in the food industry, and have sophisticated systems in place to minimize the likelihood of contamination.