During the 1970s in the U.S., sprouts became popularized as a healing food by people such as Adele Davis (Let’s Eat Right to Keep Fit) Frances Moore Lappe (Diet for a Small Planet), and Ann Wigmore (The Sprouting Book: How to Group and Use Sprouts to Maximize Your Health and Vitality). Increasingly, consumers have been exploring the relationship between highly processed foods involving nutrient depletion and chemical additives, and many long-term degenerative diseases. There is a growing interest in eating a healthy diet rich in sprouts, wheatgrass juice, berries and other primary foods. By “primary food,” I mean a food carrying all the nutrients it needs to get started on life; the seed or berry receives from the mother plant the highest quality nutrients available to ensure the survival of its species.
When the seed is first planted and begins to sprout, the nutrients burst forth and nutrients, including phyto- (plant) chemicals, which are known to have various healing properties, are often present at much higher concentrations than in the full-grown plant. For example, broccoli, radish, kale, and other plants in the Brassica family have a phytochemical (sulforaphane) at many times the level found in the broccoli branches, that has been shown to protect against a range of maladies, including cancer.
Not only are sprouts high in phytochemicals, they are exceedingly high in naturally occurring microorganisms. In the past, bacteria have often been seen as inherently undesirable, to be minimized or eliminated entirely. However, there is a growing realization that the human body exists in a complex relationship with countless types of microorganisms that are crucial not only to good health, but to our very existence.
My husband, Bob, and I have been sprout growers since 1976. I first got involved in the Massachusetts Department of Food and Agriculture, Promotional Advisory Committee, in the early 1980s. The offer of a federal/state marketing grant led me to contact other Northeast sprout growers. We set up a sprout association to both promote sprouts and solve some of our quality problems in conjunction with the University of Massachusetts Amherst plant pathology department (pathogens in those days were the bacteria that spoiled sprouts). This association led to the formation of the International Sprout Growers Association (ISGA). Our regional, national, and international involvement in the sprout industry followed from there.
In the late 1980s, CDC’s epidemiology began to identify illnesses related to consumption of sprouts and other vegetables, and suddenly we were involved with a new kind of microorganism, that made people sick. The ISGA formed a Technical Review Board and, among other projects, began work on our Code of Practice for the Hygienic Production of Sprouted Seeds and Beans.
The FDA released sprout grower guidance for growing safe sprouts in 1999. The guide basically consisted of three recommendations: treat seed with an effective disinfection process, test all production batches for pathogens of concern with hold-and-release pending negative test results, and maintain a clean and sanitary operation.
Through the ISGA, sprout growers became involved in forming a Task Force with the Institute for Food Safety and Health. A group of growers, professors, and related industry members began work with government on the Sprout Safety Audit, which I co-chaired with Tong-Jen Fu, PhD, research chemical engineer at FDA.
After a year of work on the audit, followed by beta testing with three sprout companies, the USDA suggested converting the audit to a format listing not just the requirements of an audit, but also the procedure, verification, and corrective action for each requirement. Permission was granted by the United Fresh Produce Association to model a Sprout Grower Packer Operations Safety Standard on the Harmonized GAP Standards. Interested parties, such as Whole Foods and Sysco Corp., joined in on conference calls for the next year of conversion from Audit to Standard.