Update on Alfalfa Sprouts

Update on Alfalfa Sprouts
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Raw alfalfa sprouts continue to be associated with outbreaks of foodborne illness.


Which ones have changed? Let’s start at the beginning, and work our way across. Alfalfa sprouts, considered dangerous because of the risk of food poisoning; but what’s the latest?

Should we keep avoiding raw alfalfa sprouts? Yes. Another major Salmonella outbreak last year.

The FDA and CDC recommend not eating raw alfalfa sprouts. So, I continue to encourage people to eat broccoli sprouts instead.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by veganmontreal.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image thanks to artist in doing nothing via Flickr

Which ones have changed? Let’s start at the beginning, and work our way across. Alfalfa sprouts, considered dangerous because of the risk of food poisoning; but what’s the latest?

Should we keep avoiding raw alfalfa sprouts? Yes. Another major Salmonella outbreak last year.

The FDA and CDC recommend not eating raw alfalfa sprouts. So, I continue to encourage people to eat broccoli sprouts instead.

To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video. This is just an approximation of the audio contributed by veganmontreal.

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image thanks to artist in doing nothing via Flickr

Doctor's Note

For more on sprouts, check out these videos:
Broccoli: Sprouts vs. Supplements
Antioxidants Sprouting Up
Biggest Nutrition Bang for Your Buck

And check out my other videos on sprouts

For more context, also see my associated blog post: Breast Cancer Stem Cells vs. Broccoli.

If you haven’t yet, you can subscribe to my videos for free by clicking here.

24 responses to “Update on Alfalfa Sprouts

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  1. What about alfalfa sprouts that we grow ourselves? Are the seeds contaminated (so sprouts I grow at home will be too), or is just sprouts offered by restaurants that needed to be avoided?

    Thanks for the great site!

    1. Excellent question! Turns out it appears to be contamination of the sprout seed itself, and so even if we sprout them ourselves we may be putting our family at risk. The answer? Sprout broccoli sprouts instead. Safer–and healthier too! They are kind of pungent, though. If anyone has found a good way to incorporate broccoli sprouts into their diet please share!

      1. Can you point to any cases of a person coming down with Salmonella from a home sprouting operation? The only cases you point to are outbreaks caused by commercial handling of raw sprouts. Furthermore, the study you link that you claim to show that contamination is linked to alfalfa seeds themselves, not just sprouts, does not show what you claim it does. They found various types of bacteria, mold, and yeast on all of the types of seeds they tested, not just alfalfa, but if you read the abstract in its entirety, you will find the following important result near the bottom: “Salmonella and E. coli O157:H7 were not detected on any of the sprout and seed samples tested.” So the study actually supports the opposite conclusion — that you shouldn’t be worried about sprouting alfalfa at home.

        I cannot get behind your leap to recommending against sprouting alfalfa at home unless you can point to some solid evidence beyond outbreaks caused by commercial handling. I hope that you will rethink your position and update your recommendation so that we do not spread needless fear.

  2. Lately, I have been sprouting Clover seeds at home. What is your opinion on the nutrition and safely of Clover sprouts?

  3. ohoh, i’ve been eating my homemade alfalfa sprouts for years, organic, here in france…but mostly prefer sprouts of all radishes, leeks, fenugreek, lentils…have a harder time with broccoli and parsley sprouts though (even though i love broccoli)
    can we get too much iron from certain sprouts while menopaused?

    1. The primary difference between heme iron (animal based) and plant based iron is that when one consumes heme iron, it is absorbed through our small intestines and our small intestine has no way of keeping it out. When our body has had enough iron when consuming plant based foods, our body can actively block iron absorption.

      Too much animal based iron is linked with many health issues including  breast cancer because iron is a pro oxidizer.
      “A high intake of iron in developed societies may, over time, lead to a
      physiological state of iron overload in postmenopausal women. Iron
      overload favors the production of…DNA damage, and may contribute to
      [breast cancer] independently or by [accelerating the rate of damage
      from other carcinogens and oxidizers]”http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17823849

        1. Sea salt would not contain heme iron, as heme entails “from blood”. Consuming sea salt for minerals is not the best tactic, as sea salt generally is so low in minerals that one would have to consume tens of thousands of mg just to reach 25% of the DV. An example is celtic sea salt, as presented by Jeff Novick.

          1 tsp of Sea Salt contains

          12 mgs of calcium

          7 mgs of potassium

          27 mgs of magnesium

          The recommended daily values of these nutrients are

          600 mgs of calcium

          4700 mgs of potassium

          400 mgs of magnesium

          So to get just 25% of this daily value, we would need to eat

          Calcium, we would need to take in 24,600 mgs of sodium

          Potassium, we would need to take in 335,000 mgs of sodium

          Magnesium, we would need to take in 7,407 mgs of sodium.

          These amounts would be toxic. Advertisers that claim that sea salt contains these minerals only try to paint sea salt as healthy, but salt is salt, and should be limited in the diet no matter what the source.

  4. Bacterias are in the air, they’re everywhere. Now humidity and a good growing media is all they need. If that study is to be taken seriously, then many other sprouts would be a problem (if not all of them). So my question is : why broccoli is safer? Any study prove no pathological bacteria grow on broccoli sprouts?

    1. Anecdotal, but I was a vegetarian most of my childhood (I stopped eating meat when I made the moral connection about it when I was little but was still ignorant to the reality of eggs and dairy), I sometimes ate eggs but always hated milk so rarely drank it. I grew up to be 5’7 which is relatively tall for females. I know this doesn’t answer the vegan question and even if I had grown up vegan (which I wish I had), it would still just be anecdotal, but I thought why not share.

  5. There are other important factors to consider, it seems… These people are in the sprouting business, but they don’t try to hide this fact, however they’re showing the contrast between FDA reports on sprouts vs. eggs and explaining things that these reports fail to disclose or address. I highly suggest reading the copy and pasted piece of their article below and can click the link to read in full. I just came across this and I thought it was a pretty important find:

    The FDA has created a panic over the safety of sprouts. Jane Henney, head of the FDA delivered a press release July 9, 1999 naming sprouts as a high risk food and warning that everyone, not just the young, the sick and the elderly, but EVERYONE should stop eating sprouts if they want to avoid illness. If you think this press release hasn’t hurt the sprout industry, here’s what we know: a grower we have talked to in Kentucky has just lost all her restaurant accounts. In Santa Cruz a company which has been sprouting for 20 years has stopped growing alfalfa sprouts altogether because they refuse to use the toxic levels of bleach demanded by the California Department of Health Services. Just this week the Dane County Department of Health in Madison, Wisconsin banned sprouts from salad bars and pre-made deli sandwiches. Sprout growers have lost gross sales of around 30% across the board. Our own sales continue to plummet (down 50% as of June) and if not for our mail order business, we would have laid off most of our loyal staff by now. The FDA has come close to libeling the sprout industry with misleading and downright inaccurate statements. Why Jane Henney of the FDA is so intent on obliterating a tiny industry that produces a wonderfully healthy food and whose contamination percentage is negligible compared to that of the large and powerful food industries is not at all clear to us. All we can come up with is that she does it because she can. Also, we theorize that the sprout “industry” although containing some major players with high profiles is, by and large composed of small family or even single-person operations. We have no strong, unified organization that can exert pressure and influence on us all, the way almost all other food industries have, and we think that the very independence and illusiveness of this industry makes it very hard for government agencies to seek out and control it. Understandably, this could make the FDA nervous and we can, in that sense see why Henney, maybe out of frustration, maybe out of punitive motives, issued her harsh warning. The FDA may be motivated by the desire to seek consolidation within the sprout world, by pushing out small growers like ourselves who can’t financially withstand the assaults. We, The Sproutpeople are the only ones who are apparently taking the time to research, write about, and publish this story in any depth. Make note at this time that we are asking you all to use any connections you or your friends might have to get this letter into the hands of a real investigative reporter so that this scandal can be brought to light. Our own business is tiny even by sprout industry standards. We are a small family business. We have two young children who have grown up in this business. Regardless of the FDA’s motives, we are highly offended, outraged, in fact, that the FDA is issuing press releases that say sprouts are filthy and dangerous, thereby depriving us of our livelihood. The statements of Jane Henney, Commissioner of the FDA belie the facts. In this paper we will set out to discredit the FDA’s claims by exposing how they put our industry in the worst possible light, while, in a press release on egg safety just a week before, they manage to paint that industry, which has terrible salmonella infection rates, in the most glowing terms. It will be blatantly apparent when you compare the articles side by side that the FDA kowtows to those with money . They surely do not expect the public to have done the comparison that we have done.

    We will also lead you through some simple math to demonstrate the actual risk of eating sprouts and compare that to the risk of other foods. Perspective and balance is desperately needed on this issue. Honesty is needed. Sincerity is needed. The sprout industry has had some outbreaks in the past, but they are way down from 1996 and most of those were caused either by infected seed from a seed company or from a few people sprouting in conditions that most of us sprout growers would never have anything to do with and that a simple health inspection could have rectified. The FDA has simply gone ballistic on sprouts. They are on a witch hunt and they won’t be happy until there are no sprout companies left in existence. I know this is hard to believe, but they have just told people to stop eating sprouts! I don’t think they want us around anymore.

    The FDA maintains on their web site a list of recent press releases and we went there to get the actual press release on sprouts written by Henney on July 9, 1999 that was rewritten by Reuter’s News Service and picked up by The New York Times and many others. We also noticed a press release written a week earlier by Henney (July 1, 1999) on egg safety. The facts of the sprout report are so misleading and unfair and the facts of the egg report so obviously pandering to the egg industry that we want to both refute the sprout article and contrast it to the article on egg safety. You won’t believe this:


    “Because of reports of increasing numbers of illnesses associated with consumption of raw sprouts, the Food and Drug Administration is advising all persons to be aware of the risks associated with eating raw sprouts (e.g., alfalfa, clover, radish). Those persons who wish to reduce the risk of Food-borne illnesses from sprouts are advised not to eat raw sprouts.”

    Sproutpeople Respond: Henney lies in her first sentence :”Because of reports of increasing numbers of illness associated with sprouts?” It’s just a lie. Cases are down 60% from the highest outbreak period of 1995-96. Illnesses are not increasing, they are decreasing.
    “Since 1995, raw sprouts have emerged as a recognized source of food borne illness in the United States. These illnesses have involved the pathogenic bacteria Salmonella and E. coli O157. Alfalfa and clover sprouts have been involved most often, but all raw sprouts may pose a risk.”

    Sproutpeople Respond: Not happy citing just alfalfa and clover sprouts, known carriers of Salmonella, Henney must include all sprouts. It’s a meaningless statement that anyone can make: Umbrellas may also pose a risk; alligator shoes may also pose a risk; ANYTHING MAY pose a risk. It’s a dishonest statement to make, but an old rhetorical tactic used when attempting to cast doubt on someone or something.
    “The sprout industry has been working in cooperation with government, academia, and other industry segments to enhance the safety of its product. These efforts have focused primarily on seed treatment strategies, good manufacturing practices, and sanitation. ”

    “’Despite all these efforts to make raw sprouts safer, we continue to receive reports of illnesses associated with raw sprouts. Consumers need to understand that, at this time, the best way to control this risk is not to eat raw sprouts,’ said Jane E. Henney, MD, FDA Commissioner.”

    Sproutpeople Respond: This is the statement that is killing our business. Henney completely hides the fact that safety efforts in the sprout industry so far have dramatically reduced the number of cases of illnesses associated with sprouts. She is saying in effect, that everything has been tried and sprouts are still infected.

    In fact, the FDA has tried very little, and what tests have been tried have been conducted by the sprout and sprouting seed industry itself. The FDA hasn’t really lifted a finger, because that finger would, we believe point toward the contamination of the sprouting seed at or near harvest with pathogen-infected cow manure from sick cows in huge atrocious feed lots (many non-organic seed and cattle operations run side by side). They aren’t about to crack down on agribusiness. It has been argued by some people, ignorant of certified organic farming practices that organic farmers are the contaminators because they spread livestock manure on their fields. Conventional farmers also spread livestock manure on their fields, in some cases along with toxic sludge, but there’s one difference: In organic farming, the manure to be spread has to first be composted, a method that kills any pathogenic bacteria before the manure comes in contact with the field. People who blame organic farmers are just showing their ignorance, not just for organic practices but for conventional farming practices as well,

    “Consumers who have eaten raw sprouts and are experiencing diarrhea or other symptoms of Food-borne infections are advised to consult their health care provider.”

    Sproutpeople Respond: From the infinitesimally small number of actual cases, Henney has extrapolated a huge, emergency situation: “Go to your phone and dial 911 NOW!” Another public relations (and military) tactic to create panic and a climate of fear and urgency where none exists.

    We feel we really must contrast this muckraking piece of garbage with her press release July 1, 1999
    on the contamination by salmonella of eggs. Though we have nothing against the egg industry per se,
    it illustrates to us how a report involving a massive, well funded food lobby can be watered down and
    obfuscated to avoid upsetting the powers that be, in this case the American Egg Institute and it’s
    congressional backers. Please bear with us while we give a little background:

    Eggs have since the 1960’s become increasingly more infected with Salmonella enteritidis due to the abysmal overcrowding of chickens in poultry factories and overdosing with antibiotics which have created resistant strains of bacteria. In 1990 the FDA re-designated the egg as a hazardous food under it’s model food codes. Eggs would have to be refrigerated along all points of shipment and storage. Five years later in 1996 the USDA revealed that the rules had never been enforced because the egg industry felt they were too restrictive. So the USDA, instead of blaming egg contamination on the giant producers, blamed it on the mishandling of eggs by the American public. This is the kind of “cooperation” we’ve seen from just one, giant industry. So when we saw this press release, we almost laughed–the title alone would be a joke if it weren’t so sad:


    Sproutpeople Respond: Another farce–this all happened in 1991–and nothing happened. There’s nothing like packaging old news as new news if your public is unsuspecting. New and improved same old stuff.
    “Continuing their joint efforts to combat Food-borne illness, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) and the Department of Health and Human Service’s Food and Drug Administration (FDA) today announced three important new measures to prevent illnesses caused by contaminated eggs. The FDA is proposing to require safe handling statements on labels of shell eggs to warn consumers about the risk of illness caused by Salmonella Enteritis (SE).”

    Sproutpeople Respond: Notice that the FDA is only PROPOSING TO REQUIRE this–if the American Egg Institute says it’s okay.
    “FDA’s proposed handling instructions will contain the following statement on each carton of eggs: “Safe Handling Instructions: Eggs may contain harmful bacteria known to cause serious illness, especially in children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems. For your protection: Keep eggs refrigerated, cook eggs until yolks are firm, cook foods containing eggs thoroughly.”

    Sproutpeople Respond: Cook until yolks are firm? Do you think the egg industry is going to allow the FDA to say eggs over easy are infectious?
    “In addition, for the first time, there will be a uniform federal requirement that all eggs and egg products packed for consumers be refrigerated at 45 degrees Fahrenheit or below. Retail establishments governed by the proposed FDA regulation include supermarkets, restaurants, delis, caterers, vending operations, hospitals, nursing homes, and schools. In addition, FSIS is issuing a directive applying the refrigeration requirement to warehouses and other distribution locations …including transport vehicles. FDA-FSIS risk assessment found that refrigeration makes it more difficult for SE bacteria to grow.”

    Sproutpeople Respond: This was a requirement 8 years ago. It was ignored, written out of legislation and de-funded.
    “The Clinton Administration has made ensuring food safety a top priority,” said Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman. “These additional steps will help educate consumers and reduce Food-borne illness caused by contaminated eggs”

    Sproutpeople Respond: “Educate consumers”? We hate that kind of condescending language. As if to say, once again, the consumer is ignorant and needs education; we’ve been cooking eggs all wrong for centuries and it’s our own fault if we get sick.


    Even the head of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, whose department controls the FDA, feels the need to put in a pitch for eggs:

    “Eggs are a good source of protein and can be a healthy and economical contribution to a

    well-balanced diet,” said HHS Secretary Donna Shalala.

    Sproutpeople Respond: Even the Secretary of Health and Human Services is required to kiss egg butt. She goes on to admonish:
    “However, they need proper handling or they could potentially be the source of Food-borne illness.”

    Sproutpeople Respond: “Could-Potentially-Be”…I s that a double maybe? Could you qualify that statement a little more, Donna? We stupid consumers mishandling eggs aren’t quite clear on this.
    The press release then goes on to note:

    “From 1996 to 1998, there has been a 44 percent decrease in the number of illnesses caused by SE, according to the Food-borne Diseases Active Surveillance Network, known as ‘FoodNet’…”

    “SE outbreaks have been attributed to undercooked eggs or foods containing undercooked eggs served in homes, private gatherings,…”

    Sproutpeople Respond : SE outbreaks are attributed to sick chickens laying sick eggs in filthy, inhumane, overcrowded poultry factories and the FDA isn’t going to do a damn thing about it!
    We apologize for digressing into eggs for such a lengthy period of time, but we wanted to illustrate how divisive and obviously crude the FDA is handling their press releases. We think the one on sprouts should be subtitled, “Jane Henney Penny Says ‘The Sky is Falling’” and the ones on eggs, “Henney Penny Lays a Golden Egg”. We think we have the right to indulge in a bit of name calling while Jane Henney is depriving us of our livelihood. To offer the benefit of the doubt, perhaps Henney and the FDA is aware of the problems inherent in huge poultry operations and would sincerely like to change those practices. But the way they presented their press release on egg safety in contrast to their press release on sprouts mars their credibility as protectors of public health. The CDC estimates that eggs sicken 66,00 and kill 40 people per year. Sprouts don’t do that. Yet where is Jane Henney telling the American public not to eat eggs? She wouldn’t dare!

    The FDA is unable to remedy or even discuss to the public the real causes of so many of our food borne diseases, which result from poor sanitation and poor health of animals due to increasingly unhealthy corporate farming practices. Chickens are raised in huge lots of 25,000 birds, each bird getting 8 square inches of space. Cows are being fed chicken manure and cardboard because it’s cheaper by 5 cents per day per cow than soybeans. Cow carcasses are processed covered in their own manure as are chicken carcasses and nothing is done to stop it. Vegetables can be harvested and processed next to huge manure lots. The USDA, FDA and FSIS know this but they don’t want you to know that they know. In this country “downer” cows (those in the U.S. infected with “mad cow” disease) are fed to other cows even though it is known that feeding meat to herbivores is the problem in the first place. 3 Jane Henney of the FDA can’t do anything to combat the powerful lobbies and public relations companies which protect the interests of agribusiness. But she can bully the poor little sprout “industry” instead and give the public the impression that something is being done about something. She wants labels on eggs, labels she herself knows will never happen, but she can’t touch the way the eggs are actually produced, which infects the embryo of the egg itself! Our point is, please don’t be gullible about these FDA factoid sheets; they are just plain nonsense, as I hope we have illustrated.

    We wanted you to see these two contrasting press releases so you could compare the tone of the one that refers to an industry with no money to a big powerful moneyed group. I know that some reading this will be angered and call us cynical; they just don’t want to believe that our government doesn’t have our best interests at heart. They don’t believe that food industries would knowingly sicken people. But they do. And the pathetic solutions of the FDA and USDA do not attack the well-researched and documented problem of poultry overcrowding as the cause. Instead, they attack they way we cook eggs! I guess we will no longer have the right to eggs over easy, souffles and homemade mayonnaise (yum) and this may sound frivolous on the surface, but it has deeper ramifications–do we have the right to eat the foods that are traditional parts of our diets without getting sick from them? The answer from government and industry seems to be “no”.

    We have the right to eat whole foods that are alive with nutrition–and yes–bacteria for without it we will no longer be healthy and able to fend off disease. Government policy seems to be made by those totally ignorant of bacterial ecology and unaware that we are organisms IN nature not ABOVE nature. They seem to think the only good bacteria is a dead bacteria and would render our food sterile which would leave us as vulnerable as tourists in Mexico without agua purificada (purified water).


  6. Hi, Alfalfa! We don’t know, until we put it to the test. That topic has not been covered here on NF because the research is not there. The answer would likely depend on the processing methods used to produce the powder. We still think it is better to eat real food rather than green powders, and safer to eat broccoli sprouts than alfalfa sprouts. I hope that helps!

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