Food Safety Issues/botulism in fresh produce

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QUESTION: I bought 2 bags of 1.5 lbs. green beans and put them in plastic bags at the grocery store (double wrapped now because green bean bags were short and very full). Tossed them in the crisper drawer with the tops of the bags folded over against the side of drawer. Left them for 2 days. Suddenly remembered that I read  that fresh vegetables should be stored wrapped loosely and under 40 degrees to prevent botulism. The bags of green beans were all wet inside. Drawer was 42 degrees (upper fridge 36-38). First I punched holes in them, but after an hour of anxiety just threw them away and bought fresh ones. Were those beans in danger of botulism? Is the crisper tray contaminated where beans touched it?
Most important question: Aren't the areas where unrefrigerated potatoes and onions, for example, lay on each other or the floor of a cupboard creating tiny air-free environments? Potatoes come in bags with holes but some plastic lays against them. My mind cannot make sense of this, and it is making me uneasy.  We've survived this long, so there must be an explanation, but what?

ANSWER: Hi Karen,

Botulism occurs very rarely in the US, with almost all of the cases involving improperly canned low-acid foods. The bacteria form spores which allow them to survive in a dormant state until exposed to conditions that can support their growth. These conditions are a low-acid food (meat, fish, vegetables, dairy, poultry) that is completely anerobic. You can only achieve this condition in canning food, vacuum sealing food or in rare instances, submerging a low-acid food in oil.  

We eat botulism spores every day!  Then why don't we get ill?  We don't get ill because our bodies are full of air and as I said above, botulism spores only survive in anerobic environments.

Any low-acid food such as fresh vegetables that is in your refrigerator does not support the growth of botulism because it is not completely anerobic. And botulism is not the organism that is associated with fresh vegetables in the refrigerator. You did not need to throw out your fresh vegetables in fear of contracting botulism.  Most vegetables stored in the refrigerator last longer when placed in a bag with holes as opposed to a solid bag but this has nothing to do with food safety, but rather food quality.

For more reading on botulism, I suggest you check out: http://www.cdc.gov/nczved/divisions/dfbmd/diseases/botulism/

Hope this is helpful and relives your feat that your vegetables in the refrigerator could produce botulism.

Carol

---------- FOLLOW-UP ----------

QUESTION: So what would be the ideal way for me to store my vegetables--I frequently buy green onions, carrots, and red cabbage. I usually leave them in the bag they provide from the produce department but even  with the bags left untucked over they tend to get  kind of wet in there. Ziplock's perforated produce bags did even worse. My lettuce and celery stay fresh a long time in my ancient Tupperware containers (made specifically for celery and lettuce), but there is nothing made specifically for these other vegetables. What do you recommend?
Also, any tips on how to best store a leftover onion after using some (not chopped, just a half an onion leftover)? Would it be best in a glass storage container with lid, or wrapped in paper towel in the crisper, or in a Baggie--closed, not closed, or something else?
Thank you!

Answer
Hello again,

Storing fresh produce is a challenge to keep it fresh, crisp and safe for as long as possible.  Moisture is the enemy with fresh produce and that is why home refrigerators have "crisper drawers" designed for air flow to keep produce dry.  

Using the bags that you bring the produce home from the store is fine for storage.  For lettuce and green onions, make sure the produce is dry before placing in the fridge. You can wrap in clean white paper towel these items to help absorb any moisture that may be present.

I found a great video on YouTube that is accurate and may be helpful for you in storage of fresh vegetables in the refrigerator: www.youtube.com/watch?v=CxXO0ZQr2ak

To keep leftover onions, place in a sealed container and store in the refrigerator up to 10 days.

Carol

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Carol Schlitt

Expertise

I can answer questions on home food safety, sanitation and home food preservation.

Experience

I am a former Extension educator, nutrition, wellness and food safety, having retired August 1, 2010. I am a food safety instructor for the Illinois Department of Public Health, a ServSafe Instructor/Proctor and have my own company, Safe & Savory Solutions, Inc - www.safeandsavorysolution.com

Organizations
National Extension Association of Family and Consumer Sciences (Past President and current Historian), St. Louis Culinary Society.

Education/Credentials
BS - University of Illinois MS - Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville

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