Minnesota probes illness outbreak tied to alfalfa sprouts

Minnesota health and agriculture officials are looking into an outbreak of foodborne illness tied to alfalfa sprouts produced by the firm Jack & The Green Sprouts.

Routine disease monitoring identified seven cases of E. coli in January and early February, all with the same DNA fingerprint, the Minnesota Health Department said in a statement Wednesday. The illness affected people ages 18 to 84; five were female. Four were in the Twin Cities metro area, with three in greater Minnesota. Two were hospitalized, and all have recovered, the department said.

Two additional Wisconsin cases were considered part of the outbreak, but no one was hospitalized.

Sprouts are a well-known source of foodborne illness, and epidemiologist Amy Saupe said there aren't many ways to minimize the risk.

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"It can't be washed off, so even if people are being diligent and washing their sprouts prior to eating them, that won't actually help at all to remove any of that bacterial contamination," she said. "They can be thoroughly cooked before eating them, that can lower the risk. However these particular sprouts should definitely not be eaten at all."

Jack & The Green Sprouts is based in River Falls, Wis., and distributes alfalfa sprouts to states in the upper Midwest and possibly other states. Minnesota health officials urged retailers and restaurants to not sell or serve alfalfa sprouts produced by Jack & The Green Sprouts and said consumers should not eat them at this time.

"The seven Minnesota cases and at least one of the Wisconsin cases were exposed to implicated alfalfa sprouts from a variety of locations, including grocery/cooperative stores, restaurants, salad bars and commercial food service," the state health agency said.

While the investigation is ongoing, "currently, there is no evidence that other products produced by Jack & The Green Sprouts are contaminated," officials said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is working with state officials to collect samples and determine the source of the outbreak.