(UPDATED COVERAGE, March 1) In its announcement of a $100,000 grant creating the Sprouts Safety Alliance to review and refine best practices, the Food and Drug Administration said Feb. 28 that sprouts “present a unique food safety risk.”

The grant to the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Institute for Food Safety and Health is for one year. It comes in the wake of an E. coli outbreak linked to clover sprouts on sandwiches at Jimmy Johns restaurants.

The alliance is composed of members from the FDA, local and state food protection agencies, the food industry, and academia, according to a news release.

Bob Sanderson, president of the International Sprout Growers Association and co-owner of Jonathan’s Sprouts Inc., Rochester Mass., is on the alliance steering committee. He said he was happy that the public/private approach is being used.

“I believe we will mostly focus on smaller operations and how to help them,” Sanderson said. “They don’t have much in the way of resources, but in the sprout growing community there are a lot of small growers because of the short shelf life involved.”

The steering committee met in February and is scheduled to meet again March 14.

Stephen Grove, manager of industry projects at the institute, is one of two coordinators of the alliance. He said the first order of business, after finding members for technology and education working groups, will be to review current materials and identify what needs to be done in the way of developing new materials for growers and handlers.

“The steering committee and working groups will have to decide whether we need to develop any new best practices or focus on educating growers about what we already know,” Grove said Feb. 29.

Rajal Mody, a doctor working in the enteric diseases epidemiology branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said sprouts are a possible suspect anytime there is an outbreak from foodborne pathogens.

“Since sprouts were first recognized as a source of foodborne disease in the mid-1990s, they have become one of the ‘usual suspects’ that foodborne disease epidemiologists look for when investigating an E. coli or salmonella outbreak,” Mody wrote in a September 2011 paper. “Since 1998, more than 30 outbreaks have been reported to the CDC, due to many different kinds of sprouts — alfalfa, bean, clover, and others.”

FDA agrees that sprouts need special attention because “the warm, moist and nutrient-rich conditions required to produce sprouts are the same conditions that are also ideal for the growth of pathogens,” according to the release.

Lisa Mumm, a third-generation sprout seed grower and supplier with Mumm’s Sprouting Seed, Saskatchewan, Canada, said she was “very excited” to hear about the new group. She said she thinks many of the best practices are known by larger players in the industry, but that many growers need help making their operations as safe as possible.

“We need to find out why we are still having problems with sprouts and work cohesively as an industry with government to make sure best practices are being used by all seed providers and sprout growers,” Mumm said.

 The Sprouts Safety Alliance steering committee members are:

  • Federal government: Joy Johanson, consumer safety officer, FDA-CFSAN, and TJ Fu, research scientist, FDA-CFSAN;
  • State government: Jane Reick, food safety inspection unit chief for California Department of Public Health; Kevin Dreesman, Illinois Department of Public Health; Jim Topie, agriculture consultant for food inspection, Minnesota Department of Agriculture; Claudia Coles, president-elect of the Association of Food and Drug Officials;
  • Academia: Grove, Robert Hoeft, director of extension and outreach for University of Illinois; Don Schaffner, extension specialist, Rutgers University; and
  • Industry: Sanderson and Johnna Hepner, director food safety and technology for the Produce Marketing Association.