Chow Line: Raw or Lightly Cooked Sprouts not Safe to Eat for Certain Populations

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I went to a hibachi grill last weekend and I really wanted to eat the sprouts, but my husband was adamant that I not eat them because I’m pregnant. Who was right – him or me?

Technically, you both were right – it really depends on whether the sprouts were fully cooked or not.

Raw or undercooked sprouts pose a risk of foodborne infection because, unlike other fresh produce, seeds and beans need warm and humid conditions to sprout and grow. Bacteria that can make you sick, including Salmonella, Listeria and E. coli thrive in such warm and humid conditions.

As such, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration advises children, elderly people, pregnant women and people with a weakened immune system to not eat any raw or lightly cooked sprouts at all. That includes alfalfa sprouts, clover, radish and mung bean sprouts. During pregnancy, women are at increased risk for contracting foodborne diseases, said Sanja Ilic, the state food safety specialist for Ohio State University Extension.

“Listeriosis in pregnant women can have severe consequences for both mother and fetus,” she said.

Raw sprouts served at Jimmy John’s restaurants in Illinois and Wisconsin were the likely source of the recent multistate Salmonella Montevideo outbreak that began Jan. 3, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The outbreak so far has included eight people in Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota that ate raw clover sprouts.

According to FDA, raw and or lightly cooked sprouts have been associated with some 30 foodborne illness outbreaks since 1996, with the majority of the outbreaks caused by E. coli and Salmonella. Symptoms of these illnesses include abdominal cramps, fever and diarrhea, which typically occur 12 to 72 hours after infection.

Sprouts begin as seeds that germinate into young plants that are then either eaten raw or lightly cooked. The seed is typically the source of the bacteria. And while there are several techniques used to kill harmful bacteria that may be present on seeds, the FDA says, there is no treatment that can fully guarantee that all harmful bacteria will be destroyed.

The most commonly eaten sprouts include alfalfa and mung bean sprouts, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

So, if you want to eat sprouts, its best if you cook them thoroughly to reduce the risk of getting a foodborne illness, FDA says.

Other tips from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for consumers when buying, storing and eating fresh sprouts:

  • Buy only fresh sprouts that have been kept properly refrigerated.
  • Do not buy sprouts that have a musty smell or slimy appearance.
  • Refrigerate sprouts at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or below.
  • Rinse sprouts thoroughly under running water before use.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, OSU Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Tracy Turner, 364 W. Lane Ave., Suite B120, Columbus, OH 43201, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Sanja Ilic, specialist in Food Safety for Ohio State University Extension.

Tracy Turner
For more information, contact: 

Sanja Ilic
OSU Extension, Food Safety