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Citing Food Safety Risks, Kroger Chain Calls It Quits On Sprouts

Sprouts have taken one step closer to culinary oblivion, with the big grocery chain Kroger saying that as of this week, it's banishing sprouts from its 2,425 stores because they pose too big a food safety risk.

The crunchy green microplants have long been touted as raw food chock full of nutrients. But that very freshness is also why they've caused more than 54 disease outbreaks since 1990, including a mega-outbreak of E. coli in Germany in 2011 that killed 53 people.

The seeds used for sprouting can harbor nasty germs, and so far the methods used to try to kill pathogens, including dousing seeds with chlorine, hasn't stopped the outbreaks.

"Sprouts present a unique challenge because pathogens may reside inside of the seeds where they cannot be reached by the currently available processing interventions," Payton Pruett, Kroger's vice president of food safety, says in a press release. Kroger brands include Fred Meyer, Fry's, King Soopers, Ralphs, and Smiths. Kroger has endured two sprout recalls this year, which evidently was finally enough for them to say adios.

The past two years have seen a steady increase in retailers and restaurateurs bailing on sprouts, including grocery giant Wal-Mart in October 2010. That was after people in 10 states fell ill with Salmonella after eating alfalfa sprouts sold at Wal-Mart and Trader Joe's, among others.

Earlier this year, the sandwich chain Jimmy John's gave up on sprouts, after a rare strain of E. coli sickened customers in five Midwestern states. The chain had been tied to five outbreaks of sprout-related illness in four years. They switched from alfalfa sprouts to clover sprouts after a 2010 Salmonella outbreak, on the presumption that clover sprouts were smoother and easier to clean — evidently not easy enough.

The seemingly inexorable retreat of sprouts has longtime sprout-growers tearing their hair. Bob Sanderson, a sprout grower in Maine and president of the International Sprout Growers Association, told The Salt a little while back that there are new alternatives to chlorine, which hasn't proven to be a reliable disinfectant. But they can't use the new technologies without FDA approval. The last FDA guidance on sprouts was issued in 1999. While they're waiting for a new one, they see business shriveling.

Sprout-lovers may decide they can grow them at home. But the FDA warns that even the best home methods, including soaking seeds in a solution of chlorine bleach and water in emulation of the FDA commercial standard, isn't enough to make sprouts safe.

Their advice? "Cook sprouts thoroughly to reduce the risk of illness."

For those of us who grew up when sprouts were the crunchy epitome of countercultural health food, the notion of the only good sprout being a mushy cooked sprout is sad.

But it looks like the microbes have trumped nostalgia.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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