New York Times’ Bitman promotes unsafe practice

In the June 26 Minimalist column and accompanying video about herb and garlic flavored oils barfblog favorite Mark Bittman suggests a frugal trick to add flavor to a meal. And possibly a frugal method to create a serious foodborne toxin.

The pathogen of concern, Clostridium botulinum, could exist as spores on the suggested ingredients. Heating the foods may activate the spores and placing the flavor-making components into certain oils can create the perfect environment (oxygen-free and low acid) for cell growth and botulinum toxin formation. Mr. Bittman’s suggestions of a little of this and a little of that into oil could create a nasty situation.

Information missing from the print article, but included in the video, is that he keeps his oil in the refrigerator. Keeping oil mixtures below 41F is a critical step and will not allow the botulism spores to form cells. Holding the oil mixture at room temperature allows for cell formation and growth.  In 1999, three Floridians were admitted to hospital with nausea, blurred vision and eventual paralysis after eating a home-bottled infused oil concoction similar to what Mr. Bittman suggests. The commercially available (and more expensive) flavored oils that Bitman scoffs at include U.S. Food and Drug Administration-mandated microbial inhibitors or acidifying agents.

Flavored oils made right are scrumptious, botulism is not.

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.