We ate organic broccoli with little black bugs. Will we get sick?

  • Posted by: Tammy
  • August 21, 2013


ChefOno August 27, 2013

To a certain extent, you're absolutely correct. Food safety is about reducing risks, eliminating them is virtually impossible. And while most raw foods carry some danger from pathogens, sprouts are unique in how they are grown. They come with a virtual guarantee of massive bacterial contamination -- emphasis here on quantity.

You can assume all your fruit has been pooped on. Disgusting, yes, but a fact of life. Bacteria are ubiquitous, carried by insects and on the wind; they thrive in the very soil in which our food is grown. But conditions are such that reproduction is slow or non-existent. Some will rinse off, that is why we wash our produce after all, but a percentage remain behind, tucked into the crevices and pores, adhering to the oils and resins.

If just a few bacteria were capable of setting up shop and conducting business in our intestines, we'd all have been dead a long time ago. It generally takes a certain quantity -- bacterial load -- for the little buggers to overwhelm our defenses and wreak havoc. A platoon of properly equipped soldiers set up in a defensive position can easily fend off a squad of enemy fighters. A handful of moist sprouts is akin to an entire division swarming across the lines from all directions.

Another example of this concept is the reason behind why we excise leftovers from our refrigerators after a certain period of time. After cooking the bacterial count is low, but given a few days, even under 40F, enough bacteria can reproduce to do us harm. It's a never-ending battle.

Winifred R. August 27, 2013
Thanks ChefOno, good points.

Again, it's the choice of risk with all raw foods. Who's to say a bird didn't poop on your blueberries or strawberries, too. Are we going to irradiate or cook everything to mush? Yup, I'm careful to waterbath my preserves as long as required when canning, but I still like a piece of fresh fruit.
ChefOno August 27, 2013

Sorry Winifred, but home-grown sprouts present the same risks as commercial products, maybe more since the home grower isn't typically much of a microbiologist. The seeds themselves are a major source of contamination and, as stated, what's good for a sprout is good for a bacterium. Under typical growing conditions, bacteria can double in number every 20 minutes. Do the math for a 5-day growing period and remember you cannot rinse bacteria away -- that's how they get you.

As you read this article, understand only 5% of foodborne illness is linked to major outbreaks and thousands, sometime tens of thousands fall ill during many such incidents. There are something like 1.5 million cases of salmonella alone in the U.S. every year.


Winifred R. August 26, 2013
Folks, regarding sprouts, I take it that's the commercial ones. If you grow your own and are draining decently between rinses to keep them moist, but not drowned, there shouldn't be nearly so much nastiness. Again, not to say they will be sanitized but not as bacterial as commercial ones.
Raquelita August 24, 2013
nice work getting broccoli so fresh that it still had bugs! in my opinion, you're doing the right thing! cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower, kale and asian greens (mibuna, mizuna, bok choi, hon tsai tai, gai lan, etc.) are susceptible to lots of bugs, which is why they're often sprayed heavily with pesticides (here's a research study comparing all the treatment options, most of which are not approved for organic farming)! The bugs won't hurt you. In general, definitely wash your produce regardless of origin, since you don't know who's touched it before you (even if you trust the farmer has clean hands, what about the other people at the farmers market, their kids, and their dogs?). To kill any remaining critters in the nooks and crannies, I make a light salty soaking water (I've read 4 tsp to a gallon of water, but I have never measured) and plunk and swirl all my veggies of this type. That kills them and brings them out of the plant if you swish around enough. Even if you still find bugs, they'll be dead so not eating the plant in the fridge! Enjoy, and thanks for buying food from farmers!
pierino August 24, 2013
You can encounter little black bugs in brussels sprouts also, especially if they have loose leaves. As suggested by Raquelita, I too would use a lightly salted water. A short soak will clear the out. ChefOno's point on fresh sprouts is excellent. You've probably had salmonella before and maybe didn't even know it. But E-coli can kill you. You are at risk from raw spinach and so-called "triple washed" lettuce---the triple wash process can actually spread the bacteria.
ChefOno August 24, 2013

Microgreens are typically harvested just past the true sprout stage and they're usually grown in soil and full sunlight so they're more akin to conventional produce than sprouts. My understanding is they're no more inherently dangerous than full-grown plants -- which isn't to say they're immune from problems due to unhealthful growing conditions, contamination during handling and packaging, etc. My approach is to wash 'em and enjoy as long as they're affordable.

I can't think of Chinese stir-fries without thinking of mung bean sprouts.

SeaJambon August 24, 2013
ChefOno - And even worse -- who ever heard of cooking sprouts? At least broccoli you can still enjoy cooked. Never did like sprouts anyhow... but do like the microgreens. Would you consider those "sprouts" in sheep's clothing?
ChefOno August 24, 2013

Washing won't necessarily rid infested broccoli of bugs playing hide-and-seek in all the nooks and crannies.

SeaJambon, in the game of risk, I'll see your raw broccoli and raise you raw sprouts. Grown in a microbial soup, conditions that are ideal for sprouting are also ideal for bacteria -- from salmonella to B. cereus to E. coli and beyond. To put it in perspective, they're more dangerous than eating raw ground beef.

SeaJambon August 23, 2013
Agree with Cynthia on wash it. Hopefully, it was cooked, not raw. Either way it isn't the black bugs that are likely to hurt you, it is the listeria or ecoli that wasn't washed off if you didn't wash and cook. True story: had a recent conversation with local Health Dept official who indicated raw broccoli is the food that worries her the most because it is so hard to wash properly. I decided right then and there that all my future broccoli would be washed AND cooked.
boulangere August 23, 2013
Organic doesn't mean that anything is free of bugs. Besides bugs, dirt exists. Everywhere. Wash produce.
mainecook61 August 23, 2013
I doubt that the bugs would be harmful. However, no one likes bug-filled produce, organic or not. I would mention this to the supplier.


Voted the Best Reply!

boulangere August 22, 2013
Washing any vegetable prior to consuming or cooking is a good idea.
WileyP August 22, 2013
Why in the world would you eat little black bugs?! No, I really don't want to know. Hope you weren't eating the broccoli as part of a vegan diet!
Maedl August 22, 2013
Nothing wrong with a few bugs in your diet: think free food!
marynn August 22, 2013
In New York, you'd be trending and pay extra.
lloreen August 22, 2013
Think of it as extra protein ;) yes, it is gross, but I suspect you will be fine. Anyone who gardens has consumed a few bugs.
Recommended by Food52