Saturday, March 31, 2012

Bacteria in canned food

Looking through the search terms that produced hits on Safe Food this month, I came across "Listeria in canned food".

Is canned food hazardous from the point of view of Listeria?  In my opinion, the answer is "No" with just one small caveat:  "unless the food has been grossly underprocessed, or post- processing contamination has occurred".

Canned foods are divided into two main categories: Low Acid (LACF) and Acid Canned foods (ACF).  The dividing line is pH 4.6, low acid foods having a pH greater than this, and acid food having a pH lower than 4.6.

The significance of this pH value is that Clostridium botulinum can grow at pH above 4.6. 
C. botulinum is able to form very heat resistant spores and can grow in the anaerobic conditions in canned food.  Since C. botulinum also produces a lethal toxin, it is essential to destroy the spores.  So we heat the food in the cans to temperatures above boiling point (in fact we heat to the equivalent of 121.1C for 2.52 minutes and this is called a 12D process).  Properly processed LACF is safe.

When we look at acid foods, we find that C. botulinum is incapable of growth under these acid conditions and so no toxin can be produced.  Since we don't need to deliver a 12D process, we can heat for a shorter time or at lower temperature.  This has the advantage that the food is changed less and it costs less to deliver the process.  Depending on the food and the degree of acidity, we really need only destroy vegetative (i.e. non-sporulating) pathogens and spoilage microorganisms.  This will then destroy Listeria.

What about my conditional clause above?  If the food canner doesn't properly control the process, it might be possible for cans to be underprocessed.  This might occur if the steam supply to the retort (pressure cooker) is lacking or turned off too soon.  Another possibility is that cans might by-pass the retort altogether.

Post-processing contamination could occur if the cooling water is contaminated.  The can seals are not 100% watertight while they are still hot, so using contaminated water may allow a few bacteria to enter the can during cooling.  This resulted in a typhoid outbreak in Aberdeen in 1964, when people consumed imported Argentinian canned  corned beef that was cooled in untreated, sewage-contaminated river water.

Damage to the can seams caused by rough handling can also allow contamination, as there is a partial vacuum in the can.  Momentary opening of the seam caused by a blow can permit bacteria to be drawn into the can.

In summary, providing cans are properly processed and handled with reasonable care, LACF are essentially sterile, so all bacteria, including Listeria will have been killed; ACF are pasteurised and this process will also kill Listeria.


John Brooks said...

Tejas Kirodiwal left a comment on the post "Don't always blame the chicken - it spoils my sleep". It didn't seem appropriate to that post, so I have copied it here. It also contained a commercial link, so I have deleted that.

"Be aware of proper home-canning procedures. Instructions on safe home-canning can be obtained from county extension services or from the U.S. Department of Agriculture".

Actually, I think that canning of low acid foods at home is just asking for trouble. Stick to bottling fruit and either freeze your fish, meat and vegetables, or buy them from a commercial canner.

Canned Food Advocate said...

Great to see food canned properly will be listeria free. But it does scare me that someone else's negligence can spoil what is otherwise a great way to buy food!

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