Sunday, June 28, 2009

EXCLUSIVE: Is Mark Bittman's Recipe For Flavored Oils Also A Recipe For Botulism?

If you happened to stumble on Mark Bittman's recipe, article and video posted Friday about how to make flavor-infused oil from home -- and didn't heed his casual advice to stick it in the refrigerator before using it -- you may want to be aware of something he neglects to mention: unrefrigerated infused oils can cause botulism.

Yesterday -- within hours after The NYTPicker wrote to Bittman and Pete Wells, the NYT's Dining editor for comment on this story -- the recipe was quietly removed from the NYT website. The article itself makes no references at all to refrigeration ("let steep a bit, cool, and use," he writes), and remains posted. So does the video, although it's no longer displayed alongside the article. (It can still be found by searching the NYT's video section.) Neither Bittman or Wells responded to The NYTPicker's request for comment.

Bittman's article, recipe and video all failed to mention anywhere warnings by food-safety experts, chefs and the Food and Drug Administration, that unless properly heated during preparation and refrigerated afterwards, the addition of herbs like garlic and rosemary to olive oil can potentially lead to toxicity levels that cause botulism. Nor does it include a frequent suggestion (by thr FDA, among others) to add an anti-microbial agent as an extra precaution.

Most notably, the recipe's passing reference to refrigeration -- which didn't even make it into the article itself -- doesn't do justice to the fact that refrigeration is a necessary step in avoiding the botulism risk.

"I'd keep it refrigerated," Bittman tells viewers on his video, as though it's an optional step that has more to do with flavor than health.

To be fair, other recipes online also leave out these warnings, and this posting isn't meant to suggest that the widely-respected Bittman intends any health risk to his readers. But it's important to note that other chefs -- such as Alton Brown on the Food Network -- have brought up the potential hazards of homemade flavor-infused oils when offering recipes, and that numerous web postings address the food safety issues involved.

Botulism is a relatively rare but dangerous illness that causes paralysis in the face and other areas of the central nervous system -- and is caused by, among other things, contaminated foods that carry the toxic spores.

In 1989, after three botulism outbreaks caused by the presence of minced garlic in oil used to make garlic bread, the Food and Drug Administration required that all commercially-produced garlic-infused oils be prepared with an anti-microbial agent -- such as phosphoric acid. That news was reported on May 3, 1989 in a NYT article by food writer Marian Burros.

The FDA now recommends that homemade infused oils be refrigerated to prevent toxicity, and disposed of within ten days. Bittman's video suggests getting rid of the oils within "a month or two."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in its information page about botulism, specifically offers this advice under the heading "How can botulism be prevented" among its frequently asked questions:

Oils infused with garlic or herbs should be refrigerated.

But Bittman doesn't address any food-safety or health concerns anywhere in his article, recipe or video. He makes no suggestion that users include an anti-microbial agent, or that the oil be discarded within ten days, for health reasons. His article doesn't even mention refrigeration as a health requirement; his recipe does include the direction to refrigerate, but without any discussion of the health-mandated reasons.

A University of Florida food-safety website puts the problem this way:

Garlic-in-oil provides an ideal environment for Clostridium botulinum, especially when the product has been stored at a temperature high enough for the bacteria to grow. When Clostridium botulinum grow in the contaminated garlic in oil, the deadly toxin can be released into the mixture. Once the bacteria start to grow, refrigerating the product slows down but does not stop the production of botulinum toxin.

Hmmm. Seems worth mentioning, doesn't it?

1 comment:

Joshua said...

I noticed that when I read the article, but just grumbled about how much I dislike Bittman and ignored it. Good catch!