The study, published in the April 2013 issue of the journal Food Control, was written by Kansas State University food safety professor Doug Powell, two of his colleagues and a professor from the University of British Columbia.
Powell said that of the top five fresh produce commodities at risk for contamination — lettuce, tomatoes, green onions, cantaloupe and sprouts — sprouts are the most difficult to control for food safety risks.
“They’re one of the very few foods I won’t eat,” he said.
According to the study, even after the Food and Drug Administration began warning consumers of the risk of sprouts in recent years, the message is not getting through.
“Consumer and industry awareness of risk remains low,” according to the study. “To minimize health risks linked to the consumption of sprout products, local and national public health agencies, restaurants, retailers and producers need validated, consistent and repeated risk messaging through a variety of sources.”
In the past two decades, sprouts have been a recurring food safety concern, with at least 55 documented foodborne outbreaks affecting more than 15,000 people, according to the study.
Powell and his co-authors compiled materials from selected publications to analyze the safety and risk communications related to raw sprouts, including microbiological safety, efforts to improve production practices and effectiveness of communication prior to, during, and after sprout-related outbreaks.
“Scientific investigation and media coverage of sprout-related outbreaks has led to improved production guidelines and public health enforcement actions, yet continued outbreaks call into question the effectiveness of risk management strategies and producer compliance,” according to the study.
Sprouts are particularly prone to food safety outbreaks because a sprout seed can be contaminated while the plant is growing, and the high temperatures and moisture plants are exposed to while growing are perfect incubators, Powell said.