Sprouted seeds safety advice

Since 1996, there have been at least 30 reported outbreaks of foodborne illness around the world associated with different types of raw and lightly cooked sprouts.

Most of these outbreaks were caused by salmonella and harmful strains of E. coli.

In the UK, there have been a number of cases of salmonella poisoning from eating raw bean sprouts.

What are sprouts?

Seeds grown in water produce sprouts. These are collected before the leaves develop and the final product is eaten whole, including the seed. There are many types of sprouts, examples include:

  • bean sprouts (mung bean)
  • alfalfa
  • radish
  • fenugreek
  • clover 

What bacteria can be found on sprouts?

Salmonella and escherichia coli (E. coli) are the bacteria that most often cause food poisoning from sprouts. Other bacteria, such as Bacillus cereus, Staphylococcus aureus and Listeria monocytogenes have also occasionally been known to cause illness associated with sprouts.

Do sprouts carry a risk of illness?

Like any fresh produce that is consumed raw or lightly cooked, sprouts can carry a risk of foodborne illness if they are contaminated. Unlike other fresh produce, the warm, moist conditions required to grow sprouts are ideal for the rapid growth of bacteria, including salmonella, listeria, and E. coli.

What is the current advice on eating sprouts?

The Food Standards Agency says you can eat sprouts raw if they are labelled "ready to eat". All other sprouts should be cooked thoroughly until steaming hot throughout. In addition, you should follow the manufacturers' storage instructions.

If these are not available, keep them refrigerated at 5C or below and consume within two days.

You should not eat sprouts that are past their use by date and should avoid using sprouts that have turned brown or changed colour.

Does washing sprouts make them safe to eat raw?

No, washing alone will not completely remove any bacteria. Sprouts should be thoroughly cooked unless they are labelled ready-to-eat. Ready-to-eat sprouts can be eaten raw, as producers will have taken steps during production to control harmful bacteria.

What is the advice for vulnerable groups?

There are certain groups of people that are not only at increased risk of contracting foodborne illness, but are also more likely to develop health complications as a result. These could include elderly people, the very young, pregnant women and anyone with a weakened immune system due to underlying health issues.

People in vulnerable groups are therefore advised to cook all sprouts thoroughly until they are steaming hot throughout before eating them.

What does cooking thoroughly mean?

Cooking sprouts thoroughly means heating them until they are steaming hot throughout.

Can I sprout my own seeds at home?

Yes, but you need to use seeds suitable for home sprouting, which are subject to strict controls. Always follow the manufacturer's instructions.

Equipment used for sprouting seeds should be cleaned thoroughly using hot soapy water before and after use. Always wash your hands before and after handling seeds intended for sprouting, as well as when preparing food generally.

Read more about safe food preparation.

Page last reviewed: 09/09/2016

Next review due: 09/09/2019

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