In the 1980s and on into the mid- to late 1990s, sprouts of one variety or another appeared on virtually every salad bar and most deli sandwiches. They were widely accepted as a tasty and healthful addition to any diet. Alfalfa sprouts were most common, with clover, radish, and onion sprouts often offered as alternatives for enhanced flavor.
Sprout producers were generally small businesses, often started in basements and garages, growing sprouts in containers including gallon jars, small barrels, and, for the slightly larger operator, children’s wading pools. Seeds for sprouting were purchased from local suppliers like “co-op” stores or, again for the larger grower, one of a few national level sources. The seeds for sprouting were not differentiated from seeds intended for conventional planting and crop production.
One early sprouter was also involved in the family seed business, selling agricultural seed to landscapers, land reclamation operations, and farmers. With access to seed, especially alfalfa seed, from a variety of sources, this sprouter soon noticed that all seed was not created equal in terms of the quantity and quality of edible sprouts produced. Initially, the sprouter used this knowledge to enhance his own sprout growing operation, but he soon realized there might well be a market for superior quality sprouting seed among the growing number of small sprout producers across the country.
This sprouter found a niche as a seed supplier and is now, though no longer an active sprout grower, one of the two major seed suppliers to American sprouters. He has been at the forefront in developing seed handling systems specifically for sprouting seed. His company is developing a seed treatment process that provides sprouting seed with a significantly reduced level of microbial contamination.
At about this same time, a NASA invention, originally designed to grow assorted greens in a weightless environment, was adapted to allow semi-automated growth of commercial quantities of sprouts just about anywhere with space, water supply, and a drain. “Rotary drum” sprouting systems of one sort or another became the standard method for green sprout production.
At the peak of the sprouting business, there were more than a hundred small sprouters scattered across the country. Sprouting appealed to folks with little capital who wanted to run their own business and were, at least to some degree, committed to natural, minimal input food production. Few, if any, of the early sprout producers had significant training in microbiology, chemistry, or any other science relevant to the safe production of food.
The advent, in the early to mid-1990s, of superior systems designed to detect and track foodborne disease resulted in the discovery of many microbial contamination issues in food products not previously seen as high risk. Sprouts were among the most heavily impacted as one foodborne disease outbreak after another was traced back to what had been considered a safe and wholesome form of fresh food. With these findings, FDA and CDC interest in sprouts and sprouting grew.
As investigations continued, it became obvious that sprout seed was the likely source of many if not most of the disease outbreaks traced to sprouts. Many types of seed treatments were investigated by government and university research groups. Although complete eradication of bacteria on seed remained an elusive goal, a method first published by Larry Beauchat, PhD, a research professor at the Center for Food Safety at the University of Georgia, became the standard. Dr. Beauchat’s application of a 20,000 ppm calcium hypochlorite solution to seed prior to sprouting was incorporated as the reference seed treatment in a 1999 FDA guidance document.