You’d have to have been asleep to miss the recent controversy over bean sprouts and E. Coli infections.
According to prominent scientists, the only ‘safe’ way to eat bean sprouts – or any other form of sprouted seeds – is very well cooked.
But ask any raw food enthusiast worth their weight in miso and they’ll point out that the major benefit of the sprouted beans and seeds is the myriad of health-giving enzymes they contain, which are pretty much destroyed by cooking.
So what’s the truth behind this story and what should you be doing, to keep your family healthy, but safe?
E. Coli 0157 is a virulent strain of the E. Coli bacterium. E. Coli is usually found in the digestive system of healthy humans. E. Coli 0157 is a variant that is far from healthy, producing nasty toxins that can lead to severe diarrhoea and, in extreme cases, kidney damage and even death. So it’s really worth avoiding!
How Is E. Coli 0157 Spread?
It is usually spread via the faeces (‘poo’ to you and me) of infected farm animals and people. Common ways for E. Coli 0157 to spread include:
- Physical contact – skin-to-skin or skin-to-food – by people who are carrying the bacterium. E. Coli then enters the body through your mouth, so you can still minimise this risk by good hand hygiene.
- Consuming under-cooked meat from an animal that is infected.
- Contact with work surfaces / chopping boards / knives that have been used to prepare raw meat that is infected. Research has shown that the bacteria can survive in these conditions for a number of days.
- Cross-contamination between raw meat and vegetables, in food preparation.
- Using non-rotted cattle manure to fertilise crops which are consumed, raw, shortly afterwards (e.g. salads). Well-rotted manure and rotted horse manure don’t present this problem.
- Being infected and then swimming in communal pools or lakes can allow the bacteria to spread to others.
- Consuming or swimming in contaminated water.
This is why food hygiene is so critical, whether at home or in a catering environment.
Once someone in an environment is infected, they can pass it on to others with whom they come into contact. This is why it is common to see E. Coli spreading quickly around a school, home or family.
Are Sprouted Beans & Seeds Really To Blame?
Note: the farm that supplied sprouted seeds in the German outbreak has now been cleared of any connection with the E. Coli outbreak.
The current theory suggests that the source of the outbreak in Europe at the moment is seeds that have been sprouted – with the finger being pointed at the company that supplied the un-sprouted seeds. The suggestion is that these seeds became contaminated with E. Coli bacteria from cattle manure used in the seed plant growing process.
As a result, the current advice in the UK is that any sprouted seed should be considered suspect and not consumed raw. ‘High risk’ groups, such as pregnant women, children and the elderly are being advised not to consume them at all.
The E. Coli bacteria, if present in the animal manure, are very unlikely to have contaminated the seeds at the plant growing stage, because:
- Current farming procedures are very clear about the fact that manure or slurry must be well rotted (months, not weeks), before being used as a fertiliser, thereby minimising this risk.
- Plants would have been fertilised long before the seeds were harvested, meaning the incubation period for E. Coli would have passed by then.
- Seeds – whether for sprouting or any other purpose – are harvested from pods which have dried thoroughly. This takes some time and would be longer than the incubation period for E. Coli on plants, even if the main plants had been exposed to the bacterium.
- Farmers (and hence seed suppliers) are required to follow strict hygiene procedures, which should have minimised the possibility of, say, infected humans handling the seeds during the harvesting and packaging processes.
- The likelihood of the seeds being used for sprouting within days or even weeks of them being packaged is very low, meaning the bacteria should have died out.
- When seeds are actually sprouted, they aren’t fertilised. The process only uses the seed and water. Unless the water or equipment is contaminated, the sprouting process poses no risk, as long as human hygiene procedures are followed. (wash your hands!)
So How Could Sprouted Beans And Seeds Spread E. Coli?
If the bean sprouts were, in fact, implicated during the recent outbreaks, it is much more likely that the contamination happened during the sprouting or catering-preparation processes, for example:
- Poor hygiene – e.g. infected humans not properly washing their hands before handling sprouts during the sprouting process
- Poor kitchen hygiene – e.g. cross-contamination from infected raw meat to the bean sprouts during the final food preparation stages
- Poor hygiene at serving – e.g. infected humans not properly washing their hands before handling the sprouts during the adding of the sprouted beans to the final dishes
At some stage, the beans or seeds would have to have become contaminated with infected faeces. All of these factors could equally apply to a lettuce, an apple or a pre-packed sandwich as to a sprouted seeds. As long as standard hygiene practices were followed, the risk of contamination really should be tiny.
Of course, there may be other ways, as yet undetected, that could play a role.
But surely our food decisions should be based on evidence and common sense, rather than knee-jerk reaction?
How To Make Seed Sprouting Safe?
- Buy your seeds from reputable sources, organic if possible, where you know that they will have followed stringent safety procedures regarding the use of well-rotted, not fresh, manure and slurry for fertilising the land.
- If you buy your seeds ready-sprouted, buy them from a reputable company that you trust to be following the same hygiene common sense that you would expect them to follow for any other food production process.
- If possible, sprout your seeds yourself, following sensible, every-day food hygiene rules. Keep your hands, your kitchen and your sprouting equipment squeaky clean.
All common sense, really?!
Of course, each person needs to make their own decision on this. Please do your own research and find a solution that feels right for you!
What are your views on the current advice not to eat raw sprouts? We’d love to hear them via the comments box.
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