In 2011, President Barack Obama signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), which gave the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) more authority to prevent food safety problems before they happen. One of the studies to come out of the FSMA was on sprouts — the early shoots of a seed after it has germinated but before it grows to maturity. Sprouts are a living food, and the nutrients in sprouted foods absorb more easily than when the foods are in a non-sprouted form.

Eating sprouts raw instead of cooked adds a punch of nutrition, but it also adds a risk of foodborne illness. Sprouts grow in warm and humid conditions, making them more susceptible to pathogens. Doctors advise pregnant women, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems to avoid raw sprouts. Even people with healthy immune systems can end up ill from sprouts, and it happens frequently enough that the FDA studied how to prevent the outbreaks before they happen.

Between 1996 and 2016, 46 outbreaks of foodborne illness from sprouts were reported in the United States, according to the FDA's recently released study. Almost 2,500 reported illnesses occurred from sprout-related contamination. Of those, 187 people were hospitalized, and three people died.

In order to protect consumers, the FDA analyzed U.S.-grown sprout samples collected from 2014 to 2016. The agency tested 825 samples from 94 sprouting operations for salmonella, Listeria monocytogenes and E.coli.

They tested sprout seeds, fresh sprouts and spent irrigation water. Salmonella was found in 2.35 percent of seeds, 0.21 percent of fresh sprouts and 0.54 percent of spent irrigation water. Listeria monocytogenes was found in 1.28 percent of seeds, fresh sprouts and spent irrigation water. None of the fresh sprouts or spent irrigation water tested positive for E.coli. Seeds were not tested for E.coli because of "limitations associated with the test method."

The majority of the positive samples came from just a small number of sprout producers — 8.5 percent of the 94 sprouting operations tested.

A new strategy sprouts up

sprouting seeds spilling from a jar Sprouts can be contaminated with salmonella, listeria or E.coli, so the FDA is strengthening preventative measures for sprout producers. (Photo: Charlotte Lake/Shutterstock)

The ultimate goal of the study was to find and implement practices that will keep contaminated food from reaching consumers and making them ill. In the new approach, foods will be collected over "12 to 18 months, to ensure a statistically valid amount of data is available for decision making. This approach helps the agency determine if there are common factors — such as origin, season or variety — associated with pathogen findings."

But even before the sprout study was finished, the FDA found ways to make the public safer. Six product recalls from sprout producers that had positive results occurred as a result of the study. (Those producers had follow-up inspections.) The study also helped detect and stop an outbreak of listeriosis before it impacted many people.

This is not the end of the FDA's look into sprout safety. The agency will begin to inspect sprouting operations to make sure they're complying with the Produce Safety Rule, which now has had requirements for sprouts growers added to it.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.