07/24/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 09/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Health Canada advises caution when eating raw or undercooked sprouts

OTTAWA - Raw or undercooked sprouts can sometimes be contaminated by harmful bacteria and should be eaten with caution, says Health Canada.

Sprouts, such as alfalfa and mung bean, are often chosen because they are low in calories. Onion, radish, mustard and broccoli sprouts, which should not be confused with the actual plant or vegetable, are also common. These sprouts may carry harmful bacteria, such as salmonella and E. coli, which can lead to serious illness.

Children younger than five, older adults, pregnant women and those with weakened immune systems are particularly vulnerable to salmonella and E. coli bacteria and should not eat raw sprouts, the health agency said Tuesday in a release. They should also avoid eating cooked sprouts unless the sprouts have been cooked thoroughly.

Fresh produce can sometimes be contaminated with harmful bacteria while in the field, during growing or harvesting, or during storage and handling. This is of particular concern with sprouts.

Many salmonella and E. coli infections have been linked to contaminated sprouts. Between 1995 and 2011, about 1,000 cases of sprout-borne illness were reported in eight outbreaks from five provinces across the country. The largest outbreak in Canada was in 2005, when more than 648 cases of salmonella were reported in Ontario.

Healthy adults who choose to eat sprouts should take precautions to reduce their risk of exposure to unhealthy bacteria. Buy sprouts that are crisp and have been refrigerated at or below 4 C (40 F); avoid those that are dark in colour or smell musty. Use tongs, a glove or place a bag over your hand to transfer the sprouts into a plastic bag.

When eating in a restaurant, make sure any sprouts you are served are fully cooked.

Symptoms of salmonella usually occur eight to 72 hours after eating contaminated food, while symptoms of E. coli can occur within one to 10 days. Symptoms can include nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, fever and stomach cramps. People who experience these symptoms should contact a doctor immediately. In extreme cases, E. coli can lead to acute kidney failure or even death.

For more information, visit Health Canada's Sprouts Information Page,