The unfrozen ready-to-eat meals could lead to the resurgence of botulism as a major food poisoning hazard. Advances in freezing have made botulism a rare problem in modern society. But according to food scientists, a new generation of ready-to-eat foods that are only refrigerated before sold could cause outbreaks of botulism.
While most U.S. botulism cases involve mistakes in home canning or smoking of foods, some botulism poisoning in recent years has been traced to commercial foods. One person died in California in 1994 after eating chowder that wasn't properly refrigerated, and after its expiration date. That same year several people became ill after eating twice-baked potatoes at a Texas restaurant. The botulism organism is destroyed only by heat, freezing or high levels of acidity. It grows quite normally in most people's refrigerators.
The appearance in the U.S. of refrigerated ready-to-eat foods follows in the culinary path of food processors in Europe, who have been using the process for the last 30 years. "It's a concern. As new foods are developed, it's important that they are developed safely," Michael Peck, a researcher with Britain's Institute of Food Research, said at a meeting of the Institute of Food Technologists. "Care is required at every stage in the food chain, including use by consumers," he said.