How Sprout Growers Handled a Food Safety Crisis

Recent concerns about food-borne illness have the sprout growers and suppliers working to reassure worried consumers that their product is safe.

A PR crisis can arise anytime and in surprising ways (just ask the refs’ association). And sometimes, it goes beyond a specific event and threatens to engulf an entire industry.

If you have a single producer that isn’t following the accepted standards and practices, then you need to find that producer and get them up to speed.

That’s what sprout growers are facing this week following an announcement by the grocery retailer Kroger that it will no longer carry fresh sprouts at any of its stores because it has concluded that the stringy vegetables simply can’t be grown and processed safely.

“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, told the Wall Street Journal.

Kroger, the largest grocery retailer in the United States, joins Walmart, which removed sprouts from its aisles in 2010 for similar reasons.

How are sprout growers countering these claims and reassuring consumers that the industry is following best food-safety practices?

The International Sprout Growers Association (ISGA), in collaboration with the Institute for Food Safety and Health, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, recently launched a pilot program to address both issues.

A Sprout Safety Task Force, formed as part of the program, will focus on food-safety guidance and research required for the safe production of sprouts, according to an ISGA statement.

Also, a sprout safety audit checklist will “serve as a tool for sprout growers in reviewing their operations and for sprout-specific third-party audits,” ISGA said.

“If a major retailer decides not to grow sprouts, that’s a decision that is based on how they want to run their business,” said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for the United Fresh Produce Association. “The sprout industry can follow the rules and take a lot of steps to ensure that contamination never happens. [Associations are] doing everything they know, in cooperation with the FDA and with the scientific authorities out there, to make sure that all the growers are educated and understand how they need to grow sprouts.”

To successfully weather the crisis, ISGA needs to ensure 100 percent compliance from its members, Gilmer said.

“The problem that any of us face in this business is that you’re only as good as your weakest link,” he said. “And if you have a single producer that isn’t following the accepted standards and practices, then you need to find that producer and get them up to speed.”

It’s not all bad news for the sprout industry. Jimmy John’s, an Illinois-based gourmet-sandwich chain, announced that sprouts are back on the menu at its stores. According to Food Safety News, sprouts were removed in February after they were connected to five food-borne illnesses in four years.

(photo by Satoru Kikuchi/Flickr)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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