Ensuring food safety in fresh produce has been the highest-profile concern for the industry since 2006’s outbreak linked to spinach.

Though they haven’t garnered as much concern — yet — sprouts have been a recent and recurring source of illness.

Long popular as a sandwich and salad topping and among vegetarians, sprouts have been linked to salmonella outbreaks that sickened at least 112 people since November and have caused at least 39 illness outbreaks since 1990.

While they are a tiny market compared to spinach, tomatoes and peppers implicated (erroneously in the case of tomatoes) in highly publicized salmonella and E. coli outbreaks in recent years, sprout-related illnesses and the resulting negative publicity cast doubt on the safety of fresh fruits and vegetables in general among consumers.

The produce trade proved its responsiveness to ensure safe product by forming the California Leafy Greens Marketing Agreement in the wake of the spinach outbreak.

Even broader leadership was evident in the Produce Traceability Initiative — in which the Produce Marketing Association, United Fresh Produce Association and the Canadian Produce Marketing Association seek buy-in from all stakeholders to ensure a safe eating experience and rapid response should tainted product reach the public.

Sprouters should follow the example of LGMA, or something equally serious, before an outbreak becomes a tragedy. All producers need to comply with the highest safety standards.

Much has been learned about food safety best practices since the industry’s wakeup call with spinach. If sprouts pose unique challenges and risks, solutions must be identified and put in place.

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