Ironwood Tree

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Thanks Ellen!

Ellen pointed out new news on the botulism outbreak.

This is an appalling situation. First, this is an area that I have 7 years experience in. I was in food canning, I worked for a local canned food processor and I worked as a research scientist for Continental Can. Everyone in the canning industry with half a braincell knows that the worst thing that can happen is botulism. I worked with the people that developed the processes for canned food to prevent botulism. One has retired but there's a good chance the other guy is investigating this.

I really don't know how this stuff got out. At first I thought it was misformulated chili sauce. Botulinum will not grow in a pH lower than 4.5. High acid foods have shorter processing times because of this. I've heard of a case where a processor tried a new variety of tomatoes in tomato soup and found botulism in the final product. The company was responsible and the soup never made it to market. I have lots of their products in my pantry since I know I can trust them.

Now I thought this was a misformulation and I'm still wondering how it could be an undercook. It's really hard to miss an undercook. I remember talking to a technical sales rep when I worked at Continental. He said he always knew a problem was an undercook because of the smell. You can literally smell a food plant with an undercooked batch a mile away. It's horrible. I've seen and smelled it myself.

This must have been a very slight undercook or, possibly a new variety of botulism that is even more heat resistant than usual. Meat products usually will really get disgusting if undercooked. Normally a product without a lot of carbohydrate or protein like green beans is the most dangerous since they can grow botulinum but won't grow the really messy and stinky bacteria that will warn you away from the food. I always say that friends don't let friends home can green beans. In the current case, undercooked canned meat should really stink to high heaven before they ship it.

If you're worried about your canned food being safe, you should heat it to boiling - that deactivates most but not all botulinum toxins. You shouldn't depend on it but boiling could make the difference between illness and death. I always heat canned food to boiling. Make sure there is a vacuum in the can. the ends of the can should be slightly indented, bulging is really bad and bulging cans should be discarded. If you have any doubt about the safety of your food, don't eat it.

This is a very major, very serious failure. I don't know whose failure it is but maybe the company thought they could cut corners in the current regulatory environment. I do know that meat inspectors don't always have any background for the job but really most of them can recognize an undercook.


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