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Pundit’s Mailbag — Another Alternative To Sprout Seed Decontamination

From time to time we are fortunate to have an opportunity to make a real contribution. Such has been the case with our coverage of the recent sprout outbreaks. The sprout industry is small and highly fragmented. There are few financial incentives for most people to pay attention. Unfortunately, representatives of many buying organizations, such as this foodservice one, have told us they just removed the category as opposed to wrestling with its food safety problems.

Yet we are certain the category is worth paying attention to, if for no other reason than that consumers do not make a mental distinction between sprouts and other fresh produce items. An outbreak on sprouts reflects on the whole department.

Besides, though sprouts have their peculiarities, so do other produce items. We suspect that many of the solutions to the problem of outbreaks related to sprouts, solutions both technical and cultural, are likely to be relevant to the resolution of food safety problems on other items.

Sometimes our coverage has become somewhat scientific, and we know everyone won’t force themselves to read every word. That is OK. Cumulatively, though, we are creating a resource of information and analysis that just simply doesn’t exist anywhere in the world. We consider ourselves fortunate to have the opportunity to create such a resource.

We couldn’t do it, though, without the enormous contribution of “Pundit” readers. So when our piece, Lessons Learned From Another Sprout Recall — which included interviews with both Sidney Chang of Chang Farm in Massachusetts and Kendra Nightingale, with Colorado State University — brought some technical papers and an inquiry from Canada, we were pleased to add the following note to the compendium of information and analysis we have been building:

I always read with interest your newsletters on the state of the fresh produce industry. I was most interested in your recent article on the Listeria recall linked to sprouted seeds from Chung Farms.

I noted that Mr Chung was considering introducing hot water pasteurization as an alternative to hypochlorite. Some years ago, we developed a cheap and easy method to use seed decontamination treatment for decontaminating a range of seeds.

At that time there was no real incentive for changing from hypochlorite although with the current outbreak and recall, there maybe renewed interest.

I was wondering about your views on alternative seed decontamination treatments and if the industry would be receptive to adopt the method.

I have enclosed papers that we have published by the way of background information:

Inactivation of Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Salmonella on Mung Beans, Alfalfa, and Other Seed Types Destined for Sprout Production by Using an Oxychloro-Based Sanitizer

Inactivation of Escherichia coli O157:H7 and Salmonella on artificially or naturally contaminated mung beans (Vigna radiata L) using a stabilized oxychloro-based sanitizer

Concentration and Detection of Salmonella in Mung Bean Sprout Spent Irrigation Water using Tangential Flow Filtration Coupled with an Amperometric Flow-Through ELISA

Keith Warriner
Assistant Professor
Department of Food Science
University of Guelph
Guelph, Ontario, Canada

We thank Professor Warriner for his letter. We actually think there has always been a good incentive for changing from hypochlorite — it is toxic and difficult to use, and employees generally don’t like to be exposed. We suspect consumers — especially sprout partisans — would not like to learn that their food is being dipped in a toxic substance.

The issue, we think, is really a regulatory one — and in looking at it we see a caution for the whole industry. The problem is that, as we discussed in our interview with Bob Sanderson here, in its recommendation to sprouters the FDA mentions, as its sole example, that hypochlorite may be used to wash the seed at a specific dose.

Because it gives one specific option and nothing else, many buyers have adopted this as a de facto regulatory standard.

Now we have called on FDA to be specific in its guidance, but being specific quickly degenerates into being rigid and antiquated unless one is constantly checking for updated alternatives. This is not like drugs or medical devices in which manufacturers have both a mechanism and powerful incentives to seek FDA approval.

So Professor Warriner’s work probably caught little interest, not so much because the concept is not interesting but because without FDA changing its guidance, switching procedures is a risky step for sprouters.

Nothing is without some controversy. When we reported on the almond industry’s use of steam pasteurization, we heard no end of grief from raw food advocates.

Doubtless Professor Warriner’s work will find someone in opposition. Still its focus, the use of a food-grade sanitizer to decontaminate seeds, seems well worth exploring.

We appreciate Dr. Warriner and the Department of Food Science at the University of Guelph for helping us to make the industry aware of this important research.

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