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Food Safety Issues/Commercially bottled pizza sauce


QUESTION: A jar of commercially bottled pizza sauce, sold unrefrigerated, was a brownish red and had an unusual smell. Another jar of the same brand was brighter in color and smelled like the regular seasonings for pizza sauce. The lid 'popped' when opened and there was no spurting or bubbling. We did not eat it, but I was not excessively careful cleaning up. So now I am wondering about it. Is it true that the listing of citric acid in the ingredients would mean it could not have been botulism? What possible explanation besides botulism is there for the color and smell abnormalities in what looked like a perfect jar? Thank you.

ANSWER: There is virtually no risk of botulism. Botulism hasn't been found in commercially bottled or canned items in more than 30 years. The jar with the unusual smell had been contaminated with microorganisms associated with spoilage. These entered the jar after processing likely through a leak at the lid. This usually means the lid pops up but sometimes if the leak is tiny it doesn't. Simple as that. Nothing to worry about

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QUESTION: Thank you very much for your prompt reply - I received it right away - also wanted to ask about citric acid because home canning articles say it will lower the pH of the canned food to make botulism impossible - but I wonder if you know if when it is listed on commercial products if they use enough of it to lower pH below 4.6?

ANSWER: In commercial canning they heat the jars or cans to a very high temperature which sterilizes the contents. This is done in a pressurized vessel known as a retort. This kills all microorganisms including botulism, salmonella, listeria, etc. This is called low acid canned food processing. There isn't a need for acidifying the product. Home canning which is usually putting product in jars and placing them in boiling water is very risky with low acid food. It is safe with tomato products since they are acidic. That's why people acidify - such as by adding citric acid - to get the pH below 4.6 Some commercial processors of jarred tomato sauces also add citric acid if they don't jar under high pressure. I hope I'm not confusing you Kay but your questions show insight way beyond my usual questions posed by consumers.

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QUESTION: I very very much appreciate thorough explanations that help me understand as much as I can in order to make future evaluations. I think I understand - in this case, the jar of pizza sauce listed citric acid as an ingredient, so that means they probably didn't jar this under high pressure -  so the addition of citric acid was meant to lower pH  to prevent botulism (though obviously didn't prevent some other microorganisms). Do I have this right?
Although modern practices mean that commercially processed food has an excellent track record, when something unusual occurs I always have to decide, in the interest of maximum elimination of risk, how much to fuss over the cleanup of stove, pan, utensils, etc. Bleach eliminates risk but is ill-advised on many materials. Again, thank you for sharing your expertise!

The addition of citric acid lowers the pH which makes the sauce low risk for all known pathogens not just botulism. Non pathogenic microorganisms - microorganisms not associated with food poisoning - including those associated with spoilage will colonize (Live, grow, reproduce) on foods that contain water. If you are wondering how an "expert" with knowledge regarding food pathogen risk doesn't become obsessed with getting food poisoning here is my answer. If the outbreak history isn't there - if there is no or very limited verifiable food poisoning illness linked to a process or food - I just don't worry about it.  

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Carl LaFrate


I can answer food safety questions relative to food processing, retail food and food salvage after a catastrophic event such as a hurricane, flood, ammonia leak or fire. Questions related to HACCP, Regulatory, GFSI, SQF, BRC, liability issues, contamination events, pest infestation, pest control methodology,food safety defense, pathogen prevention such as L. Monocytogenes control in food processing and retail, any subject related to food safety including at home issues.


30 years experience as a food safety consultant working for the top food processors, food retailers and insurance companies that write liability policies related to food processing, storage and distribution. My firm employees 6 full time food safety auditors. I work for top law firms throughout the USA and am a staff consultant for Douglas Peterson and Associates, one of the top forensic engineering firms in the world. I also work with Risk Solutions International, a global leader in risk management.

New York State Association for Food Protection, past president, executive board Central Atlantic States Association of Food and Drug Officials

Progressive Grocer Magazine Smart Money Magazine Private Label Buyer Magazine Supermarket News Natural Foods Merchandiser Magazine Food Service Director Magazine NYS Association for Food Protection Annual Report NYS Association for Food Protection Newsletter

Syracuse University, Microbiology/Biology NYS College of Environmental Sciences, Plant and Environmental Biology Cornell University, Food and Dairy Processing

Awards and Honors
Wm. Hickey Award (2006), NYS Association for Food Protection, for contributions in the field of food safety and sanitation New York State Integrated Pest Management Award (2007), NYS Assoc. for Food Protection, for contributions in the filed of integrated pest management.

Past/Present Clients
Pillsbury, Agri-Mark, Associated Grocers, Beatrice Foods, Cargill, Southern Cold Storage, Quaker, Ben & Jerry’s, Delverde Pasta (Italy), New York Bakery, Cabot Cheese, Hazelwood Farms, General Mills, Price Chopper Supermarkets, P&C Supermarkets, Great American Supermarkets, Tops Markets, Big M Supermarkets, Big Bear Supermarkets, Frito-Lay Distribution Centers, IBP, Excell, Eckerd Drugs, Rite Aid Drug Stores, Fay’s Drugs, Carl’s Drugs, AWI Wholesale Food Distribution, McLane Food Distributors, Golub Food Distribution, many supermarket chains (many include large scale specialty food service operations), Burger King, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Darden Foods (Red Lobster, Olive Garden), LSG Skychefs (Germany, US), Glen Mills Schools, Cornell University, Crider Poultry, Caesar’s Palace, The Oneida Indian Nation, Taylor Meat Packing, UCB Packaging Films

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