Monday, June 6, 2011

When DIY Could Save Your Life

I've been watching the food poisoning story from Germany with a great deal of interest.

The potential for food-borne illnesses is one of the things that prompted me to turn our diet to local sources, and while we still eat out (usually a locally owned restaurant, but probably not local ingredients), I am very comfortable with the safety of the food we eat here at our house.

At first, officials had pinpointed Spanish cucumbers as the possible source for the bacterial contamination, but now it appears that the actual culprit is bean sprouts grown at an organic farm in northern Germany*. One of the comments on the article I read stated, simply, "so much for 'healthy' organic food."

As an aside: I find that comment so sad. Illness from a bacterial infection happens rapidly - within hours of eating the food. Further, the source of the infection can usually be pinpointed and eliminated, and more often than not, food poisoning is mild and not deadly, but the "deadly" cases are almost always sensationalized. By contrast, illness from pesticides and sprays used on non-organic foods are quiet killers. It takes years for the ill-effects to occur, and by then, it's much harder to figure out what caused the cancer or organ failure, and to raid that farm and seize their deadly produce. We have no statistics to state how many people die from food-borne chemical poisoning, because no such studies have ever been conducted, and there's no way to accurately pin down a fertilizer or pesticide as the *absolute* cause.

Back to the bean sprouts, though. I can recall being warned against eating bean sprouts when I was pregnant for this very thing - commercially grown bean sprouts have developed a reputation for being contaminated with bacteria. I never knew why, and so I looked it up, and I found this information in an article about bean sprouts:

Raw sprouts may become contaminated with bacteria, including Salmonella and E. coli, when beans come in contact with animal manure during growth or storage.

Here's the thing, though. I've sprouted beans. Of all of the food growing techniques I've used, sprouting is probably the easiest, least intensive way to get fresh food into one's diet, and frankly, during the winter, having bean sprouts in the kitchen is pretty nice.

But I don't know how those commercial sprout growers do things, because when I sprout beans (and there's a quick sprouting tutorial in my book on page 85 ;), there is no soil, no compost and no fertilizer involved - in short no animal manure. I use a container with a small hole in the bottom. The beans are placed in the container, and I fill it with water. The water slowly drains out of the bottom. And I repeat every day for several days, until I have sprouts. Another, very simple way to sprout is to put the beans (or seeds) in a jar with a perforated lid. Add water, shake, drain, rinse, drain; repeat for several days; enjoy sprouts.

In my method, the only sources of contamination are the sprouting container, the water, or the beans themselves.

Sprouts are touted as being a super healthy food, and while such claims aren't validated, the fact is that, depending on how they're grown, they are an easy way to get fresh food into one's diet, especially at a time of year for those of us who live in a four-season climate, when that's not always possible.

And anyone, living in nearly any situation, can have sprouts. The only challenge would be to find the seeds/beans, but in reality, a packet of seeds (many of which can be sprouted) is less than $2.

Many years ago I participated in a discussion about food safety, and one of the people who was commented got very frustrated with the discussion and declared that the only way we can be completely sure that our food is safe is to grow it ourselves - which she also declared was not possible for those of us who don't live on large acreages.

If I want beef and dairy products in my diet, I have to trust my farmer, but for a good portion of the rest of my diet, I can do-it-myself - including bean sprouts, and with as easy as they are, it's silly not to.

*The source of the contamination appears to be sprouts served in restaurants. Given the shear volume of food that is handled on a daily basis on the food service industry (much of it from large, corporate farms), it's no wonder that many cases of food poisoning originate from consuming restaurant food. If I were the advice-giving kind of person, I would encourage those who listen to eschew uncooked food from restaurants - including that lovely first-course salad with house dressing. Get the blooming onion, instead ... but consider skipping the sauce.


  1. I had never considered the possibility that the beans themselves may have been contaminated before they were sprouted. Do you know if this is really possible? Can E. coli survive on or in a dried bean?

    I once reassured a student of mine in a cooking class that home-sprouted beans were extremely safe, for precisely the reason that one can't contaminate oneself with a disease. Even if her beans were contaminated by oral-fecal means, well, if she contaminated them and she consumed them, she wasn't getting anything she didn't already have, thus no risk posed. But if the bacteria can be brought in on the dried beans themselves, then I misled her.

    As with every other food-borne disease outbreak, I'm really glad we grow almost all our own fruit and veg. And each year we get closer to producing all of it. I feel we have nothing to worry about wrt our food supply.

  2. @ Kate - I don't think what you told your student was misleading, and actually, I think that last sentence in the italicized quote was misleading (so, I took it out).

    E. coli can live "for a short period of time" outside of its host, but given the nature of dried beans, the way they are processed and the way they are stored and packaged, unless you find moisture in the package of beans, it's unlikely that there are any bacterial contaminates. At any rate, rinsing the beans a couple of times should be enough.

    I'm with you, every time there is a food-borne disease outbreak, I'm glad that we grow a good portion (and increasing every year) of our food, and I've never bought raw sprouts commercially, but I do love the ones I sprout in my kitchen.

  3. I wonder. . . where I live, the crops are irrigated with reclaimed water from treated sewage/waste (the drinking water is desalinated). Perhaps it's different in Europe, but a friend who works for the water companies over here told me that the irrigation water is allowed a much higher level of fecal/bacterial contamination; that we shouldn't allow our children to play in the sprinklers or the dirt around the irrigated date trees.
    Whatever the food/cause of the outbreak, perhaps the plants were irrigated with contaminated water?