FDA takes efforts towards safer sprouts for consumers

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently released its final guidance, which provides recommendations to the sprout seed industry to prevent pathogen contamination throughout the production chain of seed for sprouting. The agency is particularly concerned about the continuous outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with raw and lightly-cooked sprouts consumption.  

From 1996 to 2020, the FDA has observed 52 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness associated with contaminated sprouts. These outbreaks have resulted in an estimated total of more than 2 700 cases of illness.  

Pathogen contamination in seeds and sprouts can occur at any point along the supply chain, such as the seed farm, seed conditioner, seed supplier, transportation, sprout operation, sprout distributor, retailer, or consumer. Nevertheless, available data and studies show that contaminated seed has been the likely source of most sprout-related outbreaks and continues to be the most common source of sprout contamination. In the US, FDA’s analysis conveys that contaminated seed was the likely cause of most outbreaks associated with sprout consumption between 2012 to 2020.  

According to the FDA, seeds can contain bacteria inside the seat coat, meaning that the bacteria will not be affected during cleaning processes. In addition, the sprouting environment is ideal for the bacteria to grow, due to its moist and warm characteristics. Thus, the practices and conditions appropriate for producing seed for sprouting will most likely need a higher level of food safety precautions compared to that for producing seed for other purposes.  

In 2015, the FDA has issued a final rule entitled “Standards for the Growing, Harvesting, Packing and Holding of Produce for Human Consumption” (the Produce Safety Rule), which includes specific standards for sprout operations. However, seeds for sprouting are not considered by the FDA as a “covered produce”. Thus, the growing, conditioning, and distribution of seed for sprouting is not covered by the Produce Safety Rule.  

With the recently issued final guidance, the FDA recommends that all firms throughout the supply chain in the sprout industry, from seed production and distribution through sprouting, to take the necessary steps to prevent the seeds from becoming adulterated. They also call businesses to review their operation related to seeds for sprouting to determine whether such steps are put into practice.