12 September 1998

So That's Where The Hippies Went

The FDA has reaffirmed one of its recent health advisories. The advisory warns that people who are at high risk for severe food-borne disease should avoid eating raw alfalfa sprouts. People at high risk include children, the elderly, and persons with weakened immune systems.

This warning is only an interim measure until some method can be developed to improve the safety of alfalfa products.

This is not the first public health warning relating to alfalfa, recently the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a warning in its Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report for August 1997. It was in 1995, that raw sprouts emerged as a recognised source of food-borne illness in the US. The FDA's action follows recent investigation into Salmonella and E. Coli outbreaks that affected a 60 people in California (the California Department of Health Services has also issued a state-wide advisory).

E. coli and Salmonella infection can lead to hemolytic uremic syndrome which can result in kidney failure or death in children and equally the elderly. Infections in healthy people tends to result in diarrhoea, nausea, abdominal cramping or fever for several days, but generally the illness is self-limiting and not life threatening.

The International Sprout Growers Association (ISGA) who represent alfalfa growers in the US is taking positive steps to address the problem. Once action they are urging growers to adopt is the use of calcium hypochlorite at 20,000 parts per million for soaking of seeds prior to germination and growth. This method of has the potential to substantially reduce microbial contamination of seeds which can then be passed on through the growing sprouts.

FDA and other public health agencies will continue to work with health care professionals in raising awareness about this potential risk. Consumers who have eaten raw sprouts and are experiencing severe diarrhoea or other extreme symptoms of food borne infections are advised to consult their health care providers.