For many, the sprout is the epitome of a healthy food: rich with vitamins, minerals, proteins, not to mention crunchy, tasty and green.

But research by CBC's investigative team (I-Team) that included an analysis by a University of British Columbia expert has found high levels of bacteria in packaged sprouts, enough to make consumers turn green.

Sprouts, including mung beans and alfalfa sprouts, have become a common food item in grocery stores, salad bars and Asian dishes across Canada.

'It was horrible, and I ended up getting really, really sick throughout the night.'—Peggy LaLune

For Peggy LaLune, who made a stirfry for her family last summer, the only difference between hers and the one she served her son was that his did not contain sprouts.

Within a few hours, LaLune was doubled over with cramps and stomach pains.

"It was horrible, and I ended up getting really, really sick throughout the night," she said.

"I couldn't venture very far from the washroom, and at one point it was so bad that I thought I was going to have to yell to my son to come and get me and take me to the hospital."

According to Health Canada, most sprouts, including alfalfa sprouts, can only be eaten raw. This means they are not exposed to temperatures high enough to kill any possible bacteria.

Fecal contamination

The I-Team asked Kevin Allen, a microbiology professor at the University of British Columbia, to test 44 packages of sprouts from across the country.

"What we were looking at was whether the produce is dirtier than it should be [and] in some of the cases, we certainly saw this," he said.

There was no salmonella but Allen found 93 per cent tested positive for bacteria, and in some cases, high levels of enterococci bacteria, which is an indicator of fecal contamination.

"They [bacteria found] come from our intestinal tract and we don't want the contents of our intestinal tract on our food," he said.

If ingested, the bacteria aren't generally harmful to healthy people, but for those with weakened immune systems, it could reduce the effectiveness of antibiotics and allow for the spread of disease.

Sprouts are particularly susceptible to contaminants because they are grown in moist, warm environments, which are ideal for the rapid growth of bacteria, Allen said, adding that washing them before consuming them likely wouldn't help.

Seeds may become contaminated by animal manure in the field or during storage, and poor hygienic practices in the production of sprouts have also caused some outbreaks of food-borne illness in the past, according to Health Canada.

"Personally, I don't consume sprouts and I would not feed them to my children, either," Allen said.

But it wasn't just the packages of sprouts that contained the unwelcome, extra contents.

Allen also tested 106 samples of bagged veggies and found 79 per cent of the herbs and 50 per cent of the spinach had similar bacterial contamination.

Thoroughly cooking those products is the best way to kill the bacteria.

Got a tip for the I-Team?


Call their confidential tip line at 204-788-3744.

Or, email reporter Alex Freedman at iteam@cbc.ca

You can also email investigations@cbc.ca