Sprouts, Common Sense, and E. coli

The recent outbreak of food borne e coli infections in Germany has generated much angst among those trying to live healthy lifestyles. The idea of facing a life threatening illness because you ate organic bean sprouts is to say the least ironic, and could be tragic.

It has also generated a large number of  sensational news stories, blog entries and editorials. Most of which were filled with hyperbole and either intentional or unintentional disinformation.

Now that it has become yesterdays news, its time to take a rational and level headed look at just what the real risk is and what the real cause may be. It is also a good time to think about reducing the risk by growing your own.

Here are some of the questions that I have been asked or asked myself.

What is e coli ?

E. coli (Escherichia coli) is a common bacteria that generally lives in the intestines of humans and many other mammals, including pigs, chickens, cows and cattle. Where it aids in the digestion.  Normally its not harmful at all, in fact its helpful.

If its so common why don’t we get sick more often from it?

There are two reasons for this. The first is good food safety practices. When we grow, handle and prepare food in safe manner we have little to worry about.

The second reason we don’t see more infection is because most strains of E. Coli are relatively non-infectious and when they do cause infection it is normally mild in healthy people.  However there are strains or types of E. coli (such as the one in Germany) that not only infect the human body, by entering the blood stream, they also produce highly dangerous toxins.

Because they are so dangerous and rare when outbreaks do occur they are extremely sensational.

Are e coli the result of Organic farming practices?

No. Not any more than are conventional farming practices. Where care is taken and proper testing is performed both methods are be safe.

How about the use of antibiotics and intensive conventional farming practices?

The use of antibiotics and intensive farming practice has been implicated in new strains of E. Coli. However they cannot be found solely responsible. Often bacteria will evolve in ways that makes them more dangerous to our health. This natural process just happens and is not always the result of human action. Battery farming of animals can be said to definitely, at the very least, contribute to the both the spread of E. coli and in the emergence of new strains.

Intensive farming and international trade and distribution of food  does dramatically spread the bacteria. And here in lies one of the most damming indictments against our modern food systems. Rather than an outbreak in localized areas, we now risk massive world wide outbreaks and swift dissemination of  new strains.

How can I protect myself and family from infection? Is it still safe to eat sprouts?

In two words  – common sense. If you practise good food selection and handling and preparation techniques your risk of infection is greatly reduced. Here are a few tips. Check out some the resource links listed at the end of this article for details.

–          select only sprouts that are fresh and have been kept refrigerated. Don’t buy bean sprouts that are dark or wilted. If they are sitting out in the sun in a big open box, think twice.

–          Don’t risk cross contamination by storing dairy and meats with your veggies.

–          Wash them well before eating even if you plan to cook them.

–          Cook them, bacteria die when cooked.

–          Keep sprouts in the refrigerator, cool bacteria do not grow.

–          Young children, the elderly and anyone already in poor health should simply not eat sprouts.

When all is said and done sprouts are generally safe. But like life itself there are no guarantees, at the end of the day all you can do is minimize your risks.

Can growing my own sprouts keep me safe?

Growing your own sprouts can help minimize the risk. But it will not eliminate it. If you don’t take care you are no better off. In fact it could be worse. Again common sense applies.

How do I grow sprouts at home safely?

I am not going to give you step by step instructions on how to grow you own. There are plenty of other source for that. But I will give a few ideas on how you can minimize the inherit risks. The same risk faced by all sprout farmers.

First one little known fact; the seeds, especially mung bean seeds, are often contaminated with E. coli. So no matter what else you do it may be all for naught. Taking contaminated seeds and growing them in nice warm water is perfect for the growth of bacteria.

What can you do? First buy certified seeds. These are seeds that have been grow and handled especially for growing sprouts. They are tested for E.coli.

If you can’t find certified seeds, and even if you do use certified seeds, disinfect them first. Using hydrogen peroxide is a good way to do this,  follow these instructions on  Ehow.

Make sure that the containers and equipment you use are all made of materials that can be properly cleaned and sterilized. And make sure that before each new batch you do clean and sterilize them.

Water can also carry not only E coli but also so other potential pathogens. So don’t use any old ditch water. Use potable water. If you wouldn’t drink it don’t grow your sprouts in it. Even better boil the water before use. Let it cool and if your not using it right away store it in a cool place.

That in a nutshell is about all there is to it. Common sense and cleanliness.

Where can I learn more ?

Preventing foodborme illness (Canadian Food Inspection Agency)

Bad Bug Book – Escherichia coli O157:H7 (EHEC) – U.S. Food and Drug Administration

World Health Organization

Sprout People

Primal Seeds

Wikipedia: Sprouting

How to grow bean sprouts at home

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