Ever gotten sick from fermented food?

Kimchi, pickles, sauerkraut, and more!

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Re: Ever gotten sick from fermented food?

Postby Tim Hall on Fri Oct 15, 2010 10:49 am

I'm certain Chewy is not a microbiologist. Anyway here's some thoughts on balance.

This obviously doesn't apply to everyone's diet here, but I've learned something interesting about microbes from milk. In my experience raw milk has a tendency to "sour." This is an important distinction from "spoil." Pasteurized milk, while it may have a longer shelf-life as liquid milk, tends to spoil. It turns putrid and stinks.

Funny how NON-sterilized milk wants to become something still edible like yogurt, kefir or cheese. Same is true for grapes and apples wanting to become wine. Maybe it's providence these fruits bear copious amounts of yeast on their skins? Wash the yeast off, and the fruit rots instead of fermenting.

Regarding obsessive worry over sanitation & sterilization - if you plan to make war with microbes, consider you're outnumbered a billion to one. Better to make friends in my opinion.
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Re: Ever gotten sick from fermented food?

Postby Alritz on Fri Nov 05, 2010 1:00 am

Hi Folks,
In addition to what Sandor says quite clearly in the youtube video, numerous online sources affirm that both the lactic acid and salt in our fermented foods suppress the growth of problematic bacteria, including Clostridium botulinum, which produces the botulism toxin.

Here's a published quote from Department of Agriculture research microbiologist Fred Breidt:

"With fermented products there is no safety concern. I can flat-out say that. The reason is the lactic acid bacteria that carry out the fermentation are the world's best killers of other bacteria," says Breidt, who works at a lab at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, where scientists have been studying fermented and other pickled foods since the 1930s.

Breidt adds that fermented vegetables, for which there are no documented cases of food-borne illness, are safer for novices to make than canned vegetables. Pressurized canning creates an anaerobic environment that increases the risk of deadly botulism, particularly with low-acid foods.

He goes on to say that properly fermented vegetables are safer than fresh ones, which may be carrying E. coli or other pathogens.
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Re: Ever gotten sick from fermented food?

Postby crandell on Sat Nov 06, 2010 11:20 am

When I tell people I like to preserve my own food at home, they usually ask if I do my own canning. I usually reply that canning is far too risky and high-tech for me, so I stick to the time-proven methods of fermenting that people have been using for thousands of years before our modern sanitation and technology.

I've been fermenting veggies, dairy, beverages and some fruits for a few years, and I've never gotten sick from it. I've rarely gotten sick at all in the past few years, come to think of it. I have had issues from food I've eaten at cheap restaurants though. At home, I've gotten a bit more adventurous in what I'll try, and not everything I've made was a success. My last batch of pickles failed miserably -- the surface of the brine was covered in mold and maggots. I cleaned all that off and salvaged the pickles, but alas, the cucs ended up being too mature and had gotten mushy. And no, I didn't get sick from eating one. More successfully though, I have some fermented hot sauce I've kept in the fridge for over a year, and blueberry sauce from the spring, and I'm still eating both of them.

What eases my mind about fermenting safety is the idea that people have been doing this across all cultures since before the days of indoor plumbing or dish soap or refrigeration or Ball jars. It has been passed on for generations because it works despite (and to some degree because of) all the dirt and germs and messiness our ancestors had to deal with. Much of our modern safety methods, on the other hand, have a extremely short and unproven track record, yet people are so quick to jump on board. History will show whether the all-out war against bacteria (anti-bacterial soaps, pasteurized foods, antibiotics, etc.) was really a good idea when it comes to public health.
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Re: Ever gotten sick from fermented food?

Postby Chewy on Sun Nov 14, 2010 1:58 pm

Here's a published quote from Department of Agriculture research microbiologist Fred Breidt:

I read this a long time ago. If my memory is correct all his comments are directed only toward PROPERLY FERMENTED FOODS. Not those that are not done properly.

You can get botulism from foods not fermented properly. That is so obvious that it hardly needs to be stated.
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Adjust the initial pH

Postby Syzygies on Mon Sep 17, 2012 4:00 pm

I'd like to add some constructive advice to this old thread: one can adjust the initial pH of a brine to minimize any botulism risk.

I view the risk as small, but botulism can kill, so it's hard to find the patience for a FlyerTalk "of course I can leave my smart phone on while we land!" debate. In both cases I'm willing to take risks, but I'm not willing to impose those risks on others. Dismissing another user's expertise is not the same thing as dismissing the risk; true wisdom is knowing what one doesn't know.

The bacteria that causes botulism does not grow at a pH below 4.6, although the toxin then persists below this pH. The pH of finished sauerkraut is between 3.0 and 4.0. Vinegar has a pH in the range 2.4 to 2.7. This is a logarithmic scale, so getting the initial pH of a brine below 4.6 leaves plenty of headroom for one's fermentation to complete. Though fermentation takes place in stages, and a lower initial pH may affect this progression. A balance is in order here.

I've been making hot sauce annually for about a decade, fermenting in a beer-making carboy using kimchi juice as starter. (This year I'm switching to a crock, which lead me to this forum.) I've been using a pH meter and small amounts of white vinegar to adjust the initial pH to the range 4.2 to 4.4.

Wikipedia's Acetic acid entry states that a 1.0 M solution (about the concentration of domestic vinegar) has a pH of 2.4. Using this, one can use an online pH calculator to determine the pH of various dilutions.

An acetic acid concentration of 0.00006 M yields a pH of 4.6, while a concentration of 0.006 M yields a pH of 3.5. This is a factor of 100. However, the situation is more complicated that calculating salinity: pH concerns the active hydrogen ions, and what encourages a hydrogen ion to go active is above my pay grade. In particular, this process is well understood in water, but my chiles could be having a buffer effect. So nothing beats a well-calibrated pH meter for seeing what's actually going on.

Nevertheless, one can use these pH calculators to make an educated guess how much vinegar to add to a brine, to reduce pH below 4.6 without unnecessarily affecting the initial stages of fermentation. We're talking a few tablespoons, to provide a large margin of error.

For what it's worth, I find that my pH meter tells me to add more vinegar than these calculators suggest, indicating that my chiles are indeed having a buffer effect.
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Re: Adjust the initial pH

Postby Tim Hall on Mon Sep 17, 2012 5:57 pm

Syzygies wrote:... but I'm not willing to impose those risks on others. Dismissing another user's expertise is not the same thing as dismissing the risk; true wisdom is knowing what one doesn't know.


Unless you're cooking and incubating your ferment with initially & totally anaerobic conditions, there is no risk. Botulism just isn't going to happen in fermented vegetables. The good bacteria already have the edge, regardless of pH.

The reason canning recipes have min. time/ph requirements is because you are killing all other competitive organism and simultaneously driving off all the oxygen (through boiling), then sealing it off to let winner (Clostridium) take all.

Botulism is a food-technology issue, not a food issue. Just like the case of the tin-foil-wrapped baked potato that sat incubating in a warming drawer that made someone sick. Just like your cell-phone-landing scenario is a technology issue. Birds don't have have this problem, because they do what comes naturally. Fermentation happens.

When an apple falls from a tree, it immediately begins to turn to cider...not a witch's poison apple.
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Re: Adjust the initial pH

Postby Syzygies on Mon Sep 17, 2012 8:53 pm

Tim Hall wrote:When an apple falls from a tree, it immediately begins to turn to cider...not a witch's poison apple.


Odwalla Apple E. coli poisoning

Like I said, I don't want another "smart phone on landing" debate. Interference is implicated in a couple of plane crashes over the years, and I have read expert advice that improper fermentation technique can (rarely) lead to botulism. Phase one replaces the oxygen with carbon dioxide. What is the range of efficiencies here, for well-made German crocks? What is the threshold for botulism? If you really have command of the numbers, start using them and I'm all ears.

Most mushroom deaths are Russian peasants. You'd think they'd know, and one could certainly write a book-length treatise on how their noble traditions must be safe.

I'm a computer programmer, and my mindset is I'm a fracking idiot if I leave in a line of code that with probability one in a billion kills somebody, if there's a simple workaround I knew about and could have applied. I don't know this much about fermentation, so I start with a pH of less than 4.6. I was explaining how someone else could adopt the same policy.

Hey, I buy my pH meters at a beer-and-wine making shop. They're routine for that crowd. I'm assuming that the lactic acid fermentation crowd is as sophisticated, but not all musicians read sheet music, right?
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Re: Adjust the initial pH

Postby Tim Hall on Mon Sep 17, 2012 9:19 pm


Once again this is an issue of our modern food technology. Modern agriculture, modern processing, modern packaging, modern distribution.
Syzygies wrote:Most mushroom deaths are Russian peasants.

Moral of the story: know what's intrinsically edible and what's not. I certainly hope you're not suggesting any here not using a pH meter is a peasant. It's entirely logical that there is risk involved in not knowing what you're putting in your mouth. But the specific risk you're referring to (which has nothing to do with unfermented carpophores) is one only of perception born out of the dogma of our modern food ways.
Syzygies wrote:Hey, I buy my pH meters at a beer-and-wine making shop. They're routine for that crowd.

Because brewers and winemakers are often concerned about the enzymatic reactions of the fermentation kinetics and the final acid balance of the product as an aesthetic...NOT BECAUSE OF FOOD SAFETY. You're not even using your pH meter the way a brewer would. No brewer adds vinegar to their beer despite the fact that maltose is the single most yummiest fermentable to practically any and all microbes. Careful where you go with your sophistication. Sheet music is easier to read when the page is right-side-up.
Syzygies wrote:Like I said, I don't want another "smart phone on landing" debate.

I got that before. Unfortunately this is a forum, and your interest or disinterest in something does not entitle you to railroad a two-year-old thread with your agenda.

I can appreciate a mathematically methodical approach to food. I take no exception with this. I sometimes formulate ferments to an alchemically obsessive degree. But that's a completely different discussion, and I won't relate it to your agenda here. Instead I'll shoot straight to mine, as it relates directly to the topic of this thread:

To help people understand you do not have to be a scientist, or know how to calculate total acidity in order to make food that is safe to eat or share with others.

THIS IS SIMPLY NOT THE CASE!

Fermented foods are generally SAFER to eat than non-fermented foods. Yes, indeed, you are far more likely to poison your guests with mushrooms than you are with sauerkraut. If you don't trust yourself to make food that's safe for others to eat, fermented foods are the least of your concerns.

Perhaps fermenting is better understood as a departure from the subroutine.
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Re: Ever gotten sick from fermented food?

Postby Syzygies on Tue Sep 18, 2012 3:12 am

Botulism (Clostridium botulinum) (Health Canada)

Health Canada lists non-refrigerated storage of carrot juice, and
baked potatoes improperly stored in aluminium foil, as two environments vulnerable to botulism.

Botulism Outbreak Associated With Eating Fermented Food ---Alaska, 2001 (CDC)

The most famous recent incident of fermentation-related botulism was fermented beaver in Alaska in 2001.

-----

Other reports include fermented tofu; proteins are particularly vulnerable as botulism can survive below a pH of 4.6 in protein-rich environments.

The environment in a well-designed fermentation crock becomes anaerobic as the carbon dioxide drives out the oxygen; it is a mistake to assume that one needs a canning vacuum for botulism to grow, as the above examples make clear. However, it is well established that the "friendlies" in lactic acid fermentation are extremely effective at eliminating competitors such as botulism.

So what happens if one has inadvertently created an environment hostile to the lactic acid "friendlies", but not hostile to botulism? One is effectively storing carrot juice at room temperature.

Now, I can't imagine how this could happen, fermenting chiles for hot sauce. But when someone dies through lack of imagination, I call that natural selection. Lack of imagination doesn't substitute for proof, in the disciplines in which I have been trained.

I'd like to learn something here. So what side effects, aesthetic or otherwise, would one expect from bringing the initial pH down below 4.6 while fermenting vegetables? There are multiple stages to fermentation; how would meddling with the initial pH affect these stages?

Armed with a knowledge of these tradeoffs, someone reading this thread could make an informed decision whether to accept the aesthetic consequences of an initial pH below 4.6, or to accept the small risk of botulism. A likely but subtle taste difference, or unlikely death. Hmm, let me think about that..

For example, I've read that in making sauerkraut, mixing in some of the previous batch can lead to a more acidic final result. This would not be a concern for hot sauce, where one typically adds vinegar later in any case.
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Re: Ever gotten sick from fermented food?

Postby Tim Hall on Tue Sep 18, 2012 8:40 am

Syzygies wrote:Botulism (Clostridium botulinum) (Health Canada)

Health Canada lists non-refrigerated storage of carrot juice, and
baked potatoes improperly stored in aluminium foil, as two environments vulnerable to botulism.


Shoulda fermented them.

Syzygies wrote:Botulism Outbreak Associated With Eating Fermented Food ---Alaska, 2001 (CDC)

The most famous recent incident of fermentation-related botulism was fermented beaver in Alaska in 2001.


Yes, the most famous one of all. I was waiting for you to put that on the table. Beaver tails in Alaska are certainly as ubiquitous as cellphones on airplanes. You know what the real outcome of that was??? Here's the reality:

First of all these were cases of fermented fish and meats - not vegetables, not hot sauce. What was determined by the CDC was that by abandoning traditional methods, and using modern materials, Alaskans were creating an environment for Clostridium to grow.

Furthermore it was concluded that when traditional "peasant" techniques were reemployed, the ferments turned out to be so safe you could intentionally inoculate them with pathogens, and then find no traces of harmful substances or organisms. In other words the natural beneficial flora easily overwhelmed the pathogenic.

Hence fermented food is safer.

When was the last outbreak of E. coli- or salmonella-tainted non-fermented food?

You are a million times more likely to die in your car than are from eating fermented foods. You are still far more likely to get food poisoning from restaurant food or a can of spaghetti-o's than from your buddy's brew. By your logic it's best to stay home, eat sauerkraut and drink beer.

If you want to give an exposition on measuring acidity, or how you make your hot sauce, there's a place for that. But not under the guise of "fermented foods are inherently risky."

Your premise is absolutely false. You simply will not find data to support your claim (good luck trying). Your cell-phone-airplane analogy is completely off base. THIS IS NOT THE PLACE TO SPREAD BOOGEYMAN STORIES.

You will not get botulism from fermented vegetables. Neither will the people you share it with.
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