Australian Salmonella outbreak attributed to alfalfa sprouts

Alfalfa sprouts have been narrowed down as the source of a Salmonella Havana outbreak in Australia that has sickened more than 20 people.

Of those 20 people, seven in the state of South Australia have been hospitalized. The implicated sprouts have been identified as having come from a farm in Adelaide and have been recalled. Consumers have been advised to return recently purchased sprouts or toss them out.

Infection with Salmonella, commonly known as salmonellosis, involves symptoms of diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, stomach pain, a fever and/or headache. Symptoms usually last two to seven days, and in most cases, go away on their own. Serious cases require hospitalization. The elderly, the very young, and anyone with a weakened immune system stands a greater risk of having a serious case.

The struggle with sprouts

Sprouts have long been considered tricky to food safety. Why? It often has to do with the way they are grown.

Early on in the growing process, sprout seeds are placed in water in a warm, humid environment. The seeds grow well under these conditions — and so do bacteria. If a seed is contaminated with bacteria before the sprouts grow, the bacteria will continue to multiply during the sprouting process. Bacteria can contaminate a seed and survive for months in dry storage conditions, and because the bacteria can be deep inside the sprout, washing often doesn’t help.

Because so many sprouts, especially alfalfa sprouts, are typically eaten raw, the risk of people getting a foodborne illness is even higher — the high heat of cooking could kill harmful bacteria. Producers can mitigate the risks by testing seeds, or seed water, for Salmonella and other pathogens of concern.

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