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Food Safety Works Colorado State University Extension
SafeFood Rapid Response Network

SAFEFOOD NEWS - Summer 1998 - Vol 2 / No. 4

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Oil Infusions and the Risk of Botulism

Flavored oils can add excitement to salads, marinades and sauces but infused oils have the potential to support the growth of Clostridium (C.) botulinum. Although the oil by itself does not pose a risk for botulism, the trendy addition of vegetables, herbs and fruits to oils, to make an oil infusion, can make this product potentially unsafe.

Vegetables, herbs, and fruits are likely to have some degree of soil contamination, especially those that grow on or under the ground. Soil contamination introduces the possibility that C botulinum spores may be added as an unwelcome ingredient in a recipe. If the produce is put into an anaerobic environment, such as a container of oil, Botulism Toxin can be produced and botulism may result upon consumption. Several cases of botulism involving garlic-in-oil preparations brought this hazard to light in the 1980's. In 1985, Vancouver, BC, 37 people got botulism from a garlic-in-oil preparation. This was followed by a 1988 laboratory investigation into the survival of and toxin production by C botulinum in garlic-in-oil preparations. In 1989, 3 people in Kingston, NY, became ill, also from a garlic-in-oil infusion. Thus, in 1989 the FDA issued a ruling, ordering the removal from store shelves of all commercial garlic-in-oil preparations that lacked an acidifying agent, followed by a mandate requiring the addition of an acidifying agent (such as phosphoric or citric acid) to all commercial garlic-in-oil preparations. Acid prevents the growth of the C botulinum, so any spores that might be present in an infusion will not be able to flourish and produce toxin. The acid must be added as the recipe is being prepared.

Are people aware of the slight, but deadly risk presented when these oil infusions are not prepared properly? Consumers need to understand the potentially life-threatening hazard of oil infusions. Oil infusion recipes can still be tasty and safe as long as the following precautions are clearly stated and adhered to:

Source: Food Safety Notebook, Vol. 9, No. 4, April 1998.

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