Teen Birthrate Falls

Births to teenagers fell for the seventh straight time last year, with the rate of births to those of high school age hitting a 40-year low.

Overall, births to teens ages 15 to 19 dropped last year by 2 percent from 1997. They dropped 18 percent from 1991 through 1998, according to a report Monday by the National Center for Health Statistics, a branch of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Births to those in the 15-to-17 age group fell 5 percent last year--to 30.4 births for every 1,000 teens. That rate has dropped 21 percent since 1991--when it was 38.7 births--and is the lowest rate in at least four decades.

Analysts point to a number of reasons for the drop. Surveys show that fewer teens are having sex and that they are using more reliable forms of birth control, including long-lasting implants and injections. Fear of AIDS has increased use of condoms.

The birthrate among the youngest teens and preteens, ages 10 to 14, fell 6 percent, to its lowest level since 1969.

Making Sprouts Safe

Crunchy raw sprouts are full of nutrition--but often they also carry bacteria that can cause illness. To make sprouts safe to eat, the government is ordering farmers to use new growing methods.

The Food and Drug Administration warned Americans last summer not to eat alfalfa, clover and other types of sprouts after confirming that at least 1,300 illnesses in recent years were caused by bacteria-laden sprouts. Other research, however, estimates that many more people--as many as 20,000--may have been sickened.

Even healthy people can become ill from sprouts tainted with salmonella or E. coli. But high-risk people--such as children, the elderly and people with weakened immune systems because of cancer, AIDS or other conditions--could contract life-threatening infections.

FDA senior science adviser Bob Buchanan reiterated the consumer warning Monday but said the government will reexamine its advice in a few months to see if the new growing standards, issued Monday, have made sprouts safer.

Growers are not doing anything wrong, Buchanan stressed. Instead, the very conditions that cause seeds to germinate--warm temperatures, with lots of water and nutrients--also spur bacteria growth. Most outbreaks in sprouts have been traced to seeds laden with bacteria that flourish and multiply under the growing conditions necessary for sprouts.

The FDA's new standards are simple ones that some sprout growers already follow voluntarily:

* Farmers should cultivate seed under sanitary conditions, including limiting the amount of manure used on crops whose seed will be harvested for sprouts and ensuring that irrigation water is clean.

* Sprout growers should disinfect seed with an FDA-approved method, such as a mild bleach solution, to reduce surface bacteria.

* The most critical step: Test the irrigation runoff after watering sprouts. If bacteria are present 24 to 48 hours after seeds germinate, the germs will get in the water. So testing leftover water will warn growers if a batch is contaminated.