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So tiny, yet so deadly. That's the verdict on raw sprouts - from the mung bean sprouts used in Chinese stir-fry dishes to the threadlike alfalfa or clover sprouts often added to sandwiches -which have caused dozens of food poisoning outbreaks in the past two decades.
The government's been trying for 14 years to get growers to do a better job of reducing contamination, but hasn't been too successful. So finally, retailers are just deciding not to sell the teeny tendrils.
Kroger, the nation's largest supermarket chain, announced this week that it will no longer sell raw sprouts because of their potential food-safety risk.
"After a thorough, science-based review, we have decided to voluntarily discontinue selling fresh sprouts," Payton Pruett, Kroger's vice president of food safety, said in a statement. Kroger joins Walmart, which stopped selling raw sprouts in 2010.
"This is big," Marion Nestle, a professor of public health at New York University, told USA Today. "This is a major retailer saying, 'We aren't going to take it anymore. We can't risk harming our customers, and our suppliers are unwilling or unable to produce safe sprouts.' "
Between 1990 and 2010 more than 2,500 Americans were sickened by contaminated sprouts in at least 46 outbreaks, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Salmonella was identified in 37 of the 46 outbreaks, E. coli in eight, and listeria in one, USA Today reported.
Sprouts were also found to be the cause last year of a devastating outbreak of E. coli infections in Europe that ultimately caused 4,000 illnesses and 50 deaths.
Although sprouts have been touted as a health food, Raj Mody, M.D., an infectious disease epidemiologist with the CDC, said in a video last year that "raw sprouts can be anything but safe" to eat.
Sprouts are typically grown from seeds in warm, humid conditions, perfect for harboring bacteria, Mody explained. The tainted seeds then transfer the bacteria to inside the sprout, where it can't be eliminated. Over the past two decades, the seedlings have become a frequent source of food-borne disease, particularly dangerous for children, the elderly and pregnant women.
Last year there were four so-called "sproutbreaks" of infections tied to people who ate alfalfa and fenugreek sprouts. In April of this year clover sprouts were linked to reports of E.coli infections in 29 people in 11 states.
The Food and Drug Administration advises that children, the elderly, pregnant women and persons with weakened immune systems should avoid eating raw sprouts of any kind (including alfalfa, clover, radish and mung bean sprouts). If you're eating out, ask that no raw sprouts be added to your food. Also, check sandwiches and salads to be sure raw sprouts have not been added. And skip adding them yourself at the salad bar.
In other health news:
Which states have the safest hospitals? A new report based on data released annually by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services finds that Arizona, California, Illinois and Ohio scored the best marks for hospital care but that quality varies "significantly" from state to state in key health areas linked to mortality rates, USA Today reports.
New breast cancer therapy tied to more complications. A recent study shows a new and increasingly popular radiation treatment called brachytherapy is tied to more wound and skin complications than the standard radiation technique, Reuters reports. Yet as many as one in six women on Medicare ends up getting the new therapy following breast-conserving surgery, researchers found.
Photo: artist in doing nothing via Flickr