Sprout growers are working to improve safety practices to try to restore consumer confidence in their products.

The effort follows years of frequent recalls and safety concerns surrounding sprouts.

The most recent recall involved a Kent, Wash., sprout grower who twice recalled sprouts in late January because of possible listeria contamination.

In 2012, sandwich chains stopped carrying sprouts and Kroger discontinued selling them after Wal-Mart halted sprout sales in 2011.

An E. coli outbreak linked to sprouts served at the Jimmy John’s Gourmet Sandwiches chain in 2012 sickened 12 people in five states and the year before, an E. coli outbreak in Europe led to at least 39 deaths and sickened more than 3,400.

During a March 20 Web seminar, presenters from the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition talked about the kind of regulations sprouters should expect in the proposed produce safety rule.

“As you are probably aware, sprouts produce a unique risk. The warm, moist and nutrient-rich conditions required to produce sprouts are the same conditions that are ideal for the growth of pathogens,” said Joy Johanson, FDA produce safety staff consumer safety officer.

Sprout producers would be required to adhere to many of the proposed rule’s provisions, including its agricultural water section, a biological soil amendment and sections covering equipment, tools, buildings and sanitation, Johanson said.

“This is an area where we are very interested in public comment,” Johanson said. “In the preamble to the proposed rules that was published with it in the Federal Register, we mentioned quite a bit of areas (for which) we wanted public comment. This was one of them.”

To verify effectiveness of sanitation practices, regulators plan to include provisions relating to environmental monitoring and also plan to focus on production of sprout seeds and beans.

In October 2012, a group of sprout growers formed the Sprout Alliance for Safety and Science.

That group began after the FDA formed the Sprout Safety Alliance and gave it a $100,000 grant to help develop best practices materials for sprout growers.

Sprout Alliance for Safety and Science chairwoman Steffanie Smith, co-owner of California Sprouts LLC, Rancho Cordova, Calif., said dedicated individuals are trying to educate the industry and consumers about the nutrition benefits and safety of sprouts.

“There have always been sprouters that are sprouting safely and following FDA guidance that was established in 1999,” Smith said.

“I think we continue to learn additional protocols and standard operating procedures that need to be implemented in sprouting operations.

“Our hope with this is to identify protocols sprouters can implement in their operations so we can begin to rebuild confidence in the product line and help the customer base understand sprouts can be grown and supplied safely.”

During the Web seminar, Stephen Grove, manager of industry projects at the Institute for Food Safety and Health at the Illinois Institute of Technology, said the Sprout Safety Alliance is comprised of 45 members that include growers, seed producers, testing companies and retailers as well as state and federal governments.

He said the alliance’s goal is to distribute training programs to as much of the industry as possible.

“We want to especially target small growers who need special attention in implementing the best practices,” Grove said.

“The educational and outreach working group has already starting taking the curriculum on the road. They’ve already held some pilot training sessions.”

David Gombas, senior vice president of food safety and technology for the United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C., said the FDA in 1999 worked with sprout growers through a sprout task force that developed industry guidance for sprouted seeds.

“They don’t need more science to figure out how to do it. It can be done today. Some folks out there are doing it today. I feel sorry for those growing sprouts safely and still suffering from the sprout industry’s poor consumer reputation,” Gombas said.

Almost unique to a produce commodity, sprouters can test irrigation water for pathogens, Gombas said.

Through the 100% sampling, growers can test for salmonella, pathogenic E. coli and listeria. If any of those are discovered, growers can discard the sprouts and start over, making sprouts the safest they will probably ever be, Gombas said.

The sprout rules in the Food Safety Modernization Act are nearly 100 pages, Johanson said.