Painful stomach illnesses caused by eating contaminated bean sprouts could become a thing of the past, thanks to what Prof. Keith Warriner of the University of Guelph and four colleagues call a breakthrough in finding a safe, effective way to decontaminate seeds used to produce bean, alfalfa and other sprouts.

They’ve developed a sanitizer to kill pathogens such as salmonella and E. coli. It’s made from the same chemical used in toothpaste and contact lens solutions.

Mung bean sprouts, often touted for their health benefits, were the culprit in an outbreak of food-related illness in Ontario last November when 600 people contracted salmonella. Public health scientists believe the seeds used for sprouting are the most likely source of contamination.

In research published Tuesday in the Journal of Food Protection, the team says adding an oxycholoro-based sanitizer called Germin-8-or to the steep water decontaminates sprout seeds as they germinate. Warriner said non-organic sprout producers currently treat seeds with bleach before the germination process, a method he said doesn’t work consistently because bacteria can lodge in tiny seed cracks where bleach can’t reach them.

A global patent has been submitted and the producers of the sanitizer are seeking regulatory approval and distributors in North America.