Sprouts, such as alfalfa and mung bean, are a popular choice for Canadians as a low-calorie, healthy ingredient for many meals. Onion, radish, mustard and broccoli sprouts, which should not be confused with the actual plant or vegetable, are also common. These sprouts may carry harmful bacteria, such as Salmonella and E. coli, which can lead to serious illness.
Fresh produce can sometimes be contaminated with harmful bacteria while in the field, during growing or harvesting, or during storage and handling. This is of particular concern with sprouts. Many Salmonella and E. coli infections have been linked to contaminated sprouts. Between 1995 and 2011, approximately 1,000 cases of sprout-borne illness were reported in eight outbreaks from five provinces across the country. The largest outbreak in Canada was in 2005, when more than 648 cases of Salmonella were reported in Ontario.
Children younger than five, older adults, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to these bacteria and should not eat raw sprouts at all. They should also avoid eating cooked sprouts unless the sprouts have been cooked thoroughly.
Healthy adults who choose to eat sprouts should take precautions to reduce their risk of exposure to unhealthy bacteria. When purchasing sprouts, always select ones that are crisp and have been refrigerated at or below 4oC (40oF); avoid those that are dark in colour or smell musty. Use tongs, a glove or place a bag over your hand to transfer the sprouts into a plastic bag. If possible, when eating in a restaurant, make sure that sprouts you are served are fully cooked.
Symptoms of Salmonella usually occur eight to 72 hours after eating contaminated food, while symptoms of E. coli can occur within one to 10 days. Symptoms can include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fever and stomach cramps. People who experience these symptoms should contact a doctor immediately. In extreme cases, E. coli can lead to acute kidney failure or even death.
Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency continue to work with producers to develop and implement best practices that reduce the chance of sprouts becoming contaminated. Health Canada's Policy on Managing Health Risks Associated with the Consumption of Sprouted Seeds and Beans was released with this in mind.
More information can be found on Health Canada's Sprouts Information Page.
For more information on sprouts and food safety, please visit:
Government of Canada's Tip Sheet on Sprouts
Health Canada's It's Your Health article on Risks Associated with Sprouts
Health Canada's information on Safe Handling of Fruits and Vegetables
Government of Canada's Food Safety Portal
Partnership for Consumer Food Safety Education's Be Food Safe Canada Campaign