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I received an email a couple of weeks ago from Pamela in Canada, who asked the following question:

“I live in Canada, in Toronto, and I’ve noticed that there have been two or maybe even three separate and apparently unrelated incidents here involving botulism in vacuum-packed fish in gourmet grocery stores. I think that at least in some cases, this is fish from other suppliers that the stores have simply repackaged. From my limited knowledge I also understand that botulism can flourish in an anaerobic environment – like that of a vacuum bag?? Which leads me to wonder….. Are vacuum bags safe? What’s going on here?”

I was reminded of Pamela’s question yesterday, courtesy of the latest food safety alert from FDA. Euphoria Fancy Food Inc. (Brooklyn, NY) is recalling Dried Bream (7.5-oz vacuum packed plastic bags; Product of Russia; No batch or date codes; UPC 7 930042 250954), which was found by the New York Department of Agriculture and Markets to not have been properly eviscerated prior to processing.

Several US states – including New York – have banned the sale of uneviscerated preserved fish, because the spores of Clostridium botulinum are more likely to be concentrated in the viscera than in any other part of the fish. New York State monitors for this hazard on a routine basis and issues an alert whenever it finds that uneviscerated or incompletely eviscerated fish are offered for sale. The state has posted three such alerts so far this year.

The hazard is not just academic. In April 2012, three people in the Greater Toronto (Ontario, Canada) area developed botulism after eating a traditional uneviscerated, salted and cured fish (fesikh) at a catered event. The fesikh was supplied by Lotus Catering and Fine Food in Toronto.

Fesikh is a traditional dish served as part of Egypt’s spring celebration, according to an article in the Egypt Independent. “The best fesikh,” the owner of a fish shop in Old Cairo told the reporter, “is made of grey mullet fish from either Bardawil Lake, or from Kafr al-Sheikh Governorate, and then left out in containers until distended. When it is sufficiently putrefied, salt is added and the fish are left to pickle for at least 40 days.”

Not all dried, smoked or preserved foods are encouraged to putrefy as part of their recipe. But, allowing the contents of the intestinal tract to remain inside the fish during its drying, salting, smoking or pickling steps is not a safe practice, even without the putrefaction step.

In addition to the fesikh health hazard alert, there have been two recalls of vacuum packaged fish in Canada in 2012 – both in Toronto. McEwan Gourmet Grocery Store recalled two brands of Smoked Salmon in April, and Pusateri’s Fine Foods recalled several different products in June. Unfortunately, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency did not explain why it thought that these products were potentially contaminated with Clostridium botulinum.

Pamela is correct – Clostridium botulinum loves a vacuum. Manufacturers who use vacuum-packaging as a means of extending the shelf life of a product must pay special attention to the processing and to the ingredients used to prevent this pathogen from growing. Nevertheless, the risk of contracting botulism from a correctly preserved and processed vacuum-packaged food is extremely low. Nor must a food be vacuum-packed in order to be the source of a botulism incident.

In 1978, a Colorado restaurant wrapped potatoes in foil, baked them, and allowed them to cool – still foil-wrapped – overnight without refrigeration. The next day, the potatoes were cut up to make potato salad. Twelve people developed botulism symptoms; seven of them were hospitalized. The temperature/time combination used to bake the potatoes was not enough to kill the Clostridium botulinum spores, and the ambient temperature cooling period allowed the microbe to germinate, grow, and produce its toxin in the tightly wrapped potatoes.

The bottom line is that food must be processed, stored and handled in a safe manner regardless of whether or not it is vacuum-packed. Or, as I recently told Food Safety News

Food safety is a farm-to-table responsibility, whether the table is in a family’s kitchen, a seniors’ residence dining hall, a school cafeteria or a five-star restaurant.

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