Tuesday, July 2, 2024

Food Storage and Food Poisoning Redux

This topic, first posted here in 2021, recently came up again (no pun intended) on another blog, so we re-present it, for the newbs:

Prepmeister sensei Commander Zero relates a recent experience (or rather, refusal to experience same) with a ten-years-past-its-"Best By"-date can of chicken soup. You should RTWT.

And now you get this post, by way of follow-up, and piling on.

Historical background: Canning food in tin cans was the genius idea of Nicolas Appert, arrived at in pursuit of a Napoleonic prize, to invent rations that an emperor's army could tote to their campaigns throughout Europe, indefinitely, securely, and without having them all go bad. (Refutation #4,000,087 on the Hit Parade of answers to the historically retarded idiots who spout "War never solves anything.") Which spoilage happened to casks of salted beef and pork with a tedious regularity. Not just for soldiers, but for everyone. Starving soldiers won't fight, because, as the same emperor noted, "An army marches on its stomach". Not literally, of course, that would be silly. But this is why amateurs discuss tactics, and professionals discuss logistics. No beans, no battles. True for Napoleonic legions, true for Roman legions, true in Iraq and Afghanistan, and true for you and your little tribe, same-same.

The early processes have, obviously, changed over the years. How isn't as important as what it means for you, if you're deep-stocking to get you and yours through...Whatever Happens.

So first, a few pointers.

1) Canned foods have a "Best By" date. If this is news to you, you're already too far behind the curve to be in this class. Log off, and come back when you're caught up.

2) "Best By -" dates, exactly like most expiration dates on medicine, are a scam. Exactly like the iconic "Lather. Rinse. Repeat." They were placed there primarily for PR and marketing purposes, because printing "Please consume all of this, even waste some of it in overuse, and then rush back to the store and buy more of Our Stuff" was considered a bit too spot-on. Part of it is also CYA legal boilerplate, because some jackhole will put his canned goods in a corrugated tin shack in the sun in the tropics, paint the whole thing black, located below the water table in a  swamp, and then bitch to high heaven when all his stuff explodes, is rusted and rotted, and smells like a Kardashian's nether bits (we hear). And then sue the company for his own jackassery.

3) For people who understand the concept of "Store in a cool, dry place.", it's a handy guideline for optimum freshness, appearance, smell, taste, and nutritional value. Not to mention safety. It is not, however, the last word, and many products will be just fine long beyond those dates. Who determines what those actual dates are? By the following formula:

4) Caveat emptor. (Common Core grads: google it.)

5) Certain foods (tomatoes, citrus items) have shorter lifespans. Acid: it's a physics and chemistry thing.

6) Oxygen is not your friend. Neither is a lack of it for shoddy or improper canning. There are both aerobic and anaerobic bacteria. This is why bulging cans get tossed. Always. Your ancestors who didn't do that? They're probably not your ancestors, but in any case they usually died for ignoring that rule.

7) As we told you, they don't can foods presently the way it was done in 1970, 1940, or 1870.

The cans and lids are not tin anymore, they're steel and aluminum, lighter now than they were a few decades hence, and they frequently utilize a plastic membrane. See for yourself. 

(Someone with high-functioning Asperger's can share the exact chemical composition of the liner; IDGAF.) The point is, this is why it's unsafe, and untasty, to heat foods in those new-fangled plastic-lined cans, unlike we could do when I was growing up, and most TV came in both black, and white. Because to do so will either ruin the food, and/or expose you to a chemical stew that doesn't go well in your insides. The first aid for that, is to not be a jackass, by not doing it. Put it in a proper cooking container, and rock on.

(That's also why, before you make Hobo Stoves and such, you'd better burn or scrape out that liner, unless you enjoy the aroma of burnt plastic with your meals.)

8) If you open something that doesn't look right, smell right, or taste right, wave goodbye, and toss it. Problem solved. You have five senses for a reason: heed them.

But somebody was too stupid to do that? Now what?

A) Botulism.

Botulism is nasty stuff. Like your cat, somebody who gets a dose of this is either going to crawl under the porch and die, or not. All you're going to do for them is supportive care, and treating the symptoms, and hope for the best.

It's caused by spores, and the kind that remain viable despite sunlight, like anthrax spores, for centuries, and which are highly resistant to most forms of sterilization. The toxin the spores produce (which is the problem) can be inactivated by heating at 185 F. for 5 minutes. IOW, boiling or hotter. But the spores that made the toxin are still in the food. Hence, throw it out if there's any suspicion.

We quote:

Food-borne botulism: The classic form of botulism is caused by the ingestion of preformed toxin in contaminated food. Symptoms include double vision, drooping eyelids (ptosis), slurred speech, difficulty swallowing and muscle weakness that is symmetric and descends through the body (first shoulders are affected, then upper arms, lower arms, thighs, calves, etc.). Death is usually due to respiratory failure and may occur as soon as 24 hours after onset of symptoms.

"Supportive care" may include months of treatment, and multiple courses of appropriate antibiotics. IF you have those. 

Quoting again:Foodborne botulism: Within 1 hour of ingestion of suspected food, the recommended course of action is a gastric lavage, or enemas, and the administration of a cathartic (sorbitol). In some cases intravenous administration of AB or ABE botulinum antitoxin is required, and assisted ventilation if respiratory failure occurs. Treatment may be required for weeks or months.

FTR, you ain't got and aren't getting AB or ABE antitoxin, unless you're far more advanced than the scope of this essay. And you probably don't have any sorbitol either. So that means ingestion will almost certainly prove fatal. We repeat, any suspicion of toxin, throw the food out. This isn't something you risk under any circumstances (unless you're a moron).

B) Everything else.

Most (99.99999%, for a SWAG) "food poisoning" is no such thing. People who are poisoned get sick, and depending on the toxin administered, die. What you've probably got is simply gastroenteritis (GE).

GE is usually caused by spoiled food, and/or lousy sanitation/preparation/food handling.

In most cases, it's caused either by air or insect vectors depositing bacterium on your food (like leaving your aunt's potato salad uncovered on a fly-infested hot day at the family picnic or BBQ), or the cook/server failing to lave los manos before, during, and after preparing, cooking, or serving you your food, including on dirty dishes, or after visiting the porcelain thinking room. It can also be caused by poor water purification, unfamiliar pathogens, etc., but frequently this is the same route, just with a bad water supply in between someone's fecal, and your oral. It is, thus, usually a fecal-oral transmission pathway, meaning someone got their chocolate in your peanut butter. In short, you ate shit.

There are two general stages to GE.

In Stage I, you think you're going to die.

In Stage II, you're afraid you won't.

This is because your body, whether you consider it a miracle of creation, or evolution, has a brilliantly simple feedback loop for letting you know you have unauthorized houseguests in your digestive tract.

It launches all torpedoes, fore and aft, from both ends of your alimentary canal, to repel all boarders.


You will now spend at least the next 12-24 hours with one end, or the other, pointed at the porcelain thinking chair, as you pass from Stage I to Stage II. You may, at times, require a bucket, when both ends are actively offloading. In between, having a few crackers and some ginger ale or lemon-lime soda handy for tiny nibbles and sips may help keep you alive, in between laying on that oh-so-cool tile floor, because it feels so good.

If you can, by hook or crook, lay in a supply of Rx Zofran ODT, you should do so. (Usual caveats about allergies, medical conditions, etc. apply. I.e. : Don 't be stupid.) Zofran is one of the currently best anti-vomiting/nausea meds available, Rx only, and ODT means "orally dissolving tablet" meaning if you can but shove the tiny tab under your parched tongue, and let it dissolve there, it will automagically absorb sublingually, to curb the load-launch-fire sequence from your forward torpedo hatch. By not having to swallow it, you can't barf it out before it kicks in.

For your other end, there's Immodium. Read and follow all label directions; it's an OTC. It's function is to turn your aft torpedo tube load-launch-fire circuit into rush hour traffic on the 405 freeway; i.e. total standstill. Use per directions until respite is achieved, then re-hydrate. You should have stocks of this laid in by, you should pardon the pun, the metric buttload. It should travel with you any and everywhere, when you travel away from home. Period.

Vomiting and diarrhea isn't serious for a few hours, until it is. It both dehydrates you, and jacks up your body's electrolytes, and if you have other conditions, you can't take your meds nor process them, so cardiac conditions, high blood pressure, diabetes, thyroid problems, and all sorts of other complications can take this from bad to worse if untreated.

In extreme cases (dysentery, cholera, etc.) you will literally crap your guts out.

Thus fulfilling the second half of "eat shit and die". It's actually a thing.

If you have the ability to properly administer intravenous (IV) fluids, do so. It bypasses the alimentary canal, and can rehydrate someone rapidly and effectively, if you know what you're doing, and can do so correctly. Bone up extensively; this is not a skill or therapy to attempt on the fly, in the moment. You can exacerbate a number of life-threatening conditions if you overdo it without knowing WTF you're about, and you can cause infection and death in a host of ways if you attempt it half-assed. Killing your patient with CHF or hepatitis instead of dehydration is a poor way to say you care, and a waste of resources if you don't know what you're up to. I cannot stress this enough for the untrained. If you don't KNOW WTF you're doing, leave this for those who do. 

But if you have Zofran and immodium, and a bare minimum of common sense, you can begin cautious hydration and nutrition.

Start simple: clear liquids. Clear means CLEAR. Water. Juice. Gatorade. Clear soups. Jello. Avoid all alcohols and caffeine-containing drinks; they're diuretics, and they'll only further dehydrate your patient. If you can't see through it, it isn't clear. Clear?

Then soft foods, easily tolerated. Parents should know this as the BRAT diet: Bananas, Rice, Applesauce, Toast.

Then regular foods. As tolerated.

If symptoms return, or any level is not tolerated, return to the previous level, and advance as able.

And nobody who's nauseous gets ANYTHING else to eat or drink. EVER.

You feed or water that person, and you're just loading the catapult for the next launch, and you're the one who's going to get a faceful. Don't Do It! 

A couple, by which I mean TWO, pieces of small crushed ice, to wet the mouth that's bone-dry, won't matter. A bowlful of ice and a spoon, however, is asking for trouble.

Throughout the process: 

Monitor vital signs. Pulses should be below 100/min, or they're still dehydrated. Check temperature, to make sure there isn't a fever, and hence this is infection/viral, not GE.

Hydration, elimination, nutrition, in that order.

How much fluid are they taking in?

How much have they put out as pee? (and vomit?)

Bowel movements: watery, runny, loose, solid? How many? How frequent?

And then, nutrition? Diet, and toleration, then quantity, and back to output.

If they don't have a normal pulse, no fever (101F. or greater) and they aren't peeing clear and copious urine, they're not done yet.

GE comes on fast. But it goes away fast too. One to two days, tops.

If this lasts longer, there is something else at play here. Consult your medical people at that point. Your doctor, in normal times. Whatever you've got if you haven't got access to normal care (wilderness, disaster, worse).

Most GE goes away quickly, and leaves nothing but sore abdominal and rectal muscles behind (you should pardon the pun) afterwards. You can minimize it, but generally, the person has to literally gut it out. You can, however, mitigate the symptom duration and severity with proper treatment.

{And if you f**k up proper treatment, you can spread it around to yourself and everyone else. Wash your hands, clean the patient, clean and sanitize linen, bedding, clothing, dishes and utensils, et cetera, or after you die, Florence Nightingale and Clara Barton will kick your ass around the block for eternity for being a dumbshit.}

And if it isn't going away, you've got a bigger problem.

The best way to prevent GE is prevention: proper personal sanitation and cleanliness, proper food storage, handling, preparation, cooking, and serving, followed by proper clean-up afterwards, from dishwashing to sewage and garbage disposal. 

Proper public health measures save more people worldwide than medicines, antibiotics, and surgery combined, since ever. By the billions. The reverse is also true.

See to as much of that as you can, and your experience with it will generally not be firsthand, up-close.

Thus endeth the lesson.



Allen said...

I've been doing some...creative...food storage shopping.

after Passover, my local grocery store always has a few 10lb boxes of matzoh on steep discount. usually less than $3 for what is basically hardtack.

inside the box, it's in 1lb boxes, vacuum packed in heavy plastic ziplock bags.I fully expect this stuff to be good for at least 25 years.

docfromjerusalem said...

Your very descriptive advice agrees with my experience, as if you needed my approval. The only suggestion I would add is not to interfere with the "Ejection Mechanisms" of The Holy One, Blessed be He, too quickly. The less "foreign material" in the intestinal tract, the less severe are the symptoms and the shorter will be the recovery phase. If there is some nausea and vomiting, the body is evacuating the causative factor from the stomach before it enters the small intestine. Zofran may keep it in and aggravate the subsequent phase. Likewise the other end with Imodium. The Imodium may trap some of the un-welcome material in the colon resulting with possible colitis. As you emphasized, "an ounce of prevention is more valuable than a pound of cure".

Aesop said...

Twenty-four hours to let the body purge the offending organisms is generally long enough.
Anything longer than that without medicating is simply self-abuse.

Anonymous said...

Good post.

Anonymous said...

Here's to Aesop. Doing what drew me in in the first place - USEFUL and ACTIONABLE (unlike half the tripe I read on the web) information which I can take away. Thanks and welcome back.

Anonymous said...

RN here. This article is outstanding! Complete and absolute required reading. And never have I seen subject matter with such pun potential. :)

Aesop said...

The Shakespearean titles for this piece were narrowed down to McBarf and Ass You Like It.
They were taken from The Puns Of Will's Sonnets, an old TV show with Walter Brennan. I think.

Survivormann99 said...


That was an informative and entertaining tour de force.

maruadventurer said...

I might observe that meme misses just a smidgen. Its not 'you will see this material again' its 'you will feel this material again' if you are not careful. Get GE once and soon after your refrigerator is empty of anything suspect.

Great post and excellent advise.

elysianfield said...

Both educational and entertaining!...and this from a guy that still has cases of sardines purchased in...1980.

Ate a can recently and no ill effects...afraid, however, to eat the Spam purchased at the same time.

daniel_day said...

Here's my best-by-date-soup food poisoning story. New Year's Eve, 2014. I opened a can of Campbell's Mushroom Soup. It was 3 (three damn) months past its best-by date. Note: I failed to watch the top of the can as I broke the seal. I warmed it with a canful of water as directed. It tasted the same as usual, delicious. A couple of hours later, my stomach began to feel wrong. I considered making myself vomit, but thought nah, it'll be okay. It was decidedly NOT okay. By the time I decided to make myself vomit, the soup had passed from the stomach to the small intestine, and there was nothing left to vomit. It took me close to 24 hours to recover. Welcome to 2015.
That's the one can of something I've eaten that gave me food poisoning, out of well over a hundred that I've opened. I did dispose of a few (2 or 3?) cans of beef hash whose tops didn't pop up and which looked wrong when I opened them. They were close to 10 years past date.
Old cans of tomatoes or tomato soup get used for pressure-testing with a .223 bullet, so they're good for a little fun.

daniel_day said...

Correction: The above comment was written before reading the entirity of this post, so per Aesop's explanation, what I had was gastroenteritis, not food poisoning. Contrary to the content of the video, I wasn't able to vomit, even from my small intestine, but who knows, maybe it had sped too far down the pipe, or I wasn't trying hard enough. I had no cathartic at the time.

IcyReaper said...

Thanks for the explanation on this issue. It helps us try to figure how how to plan for future.

Anonymous said...

The Ball Canning Book as been the standard for a long time when doing your own stuff. Believe me. Your glass and lids should be good quality and not the crap that shows up at Dollar Tree or Dollar General. The good stuff lasts--Ask the Amish. The jar preparation should be done by the book. When it says a particular headspace, do it exactly as it says. When it says 75 minutes or 90 minutes for pints/quarts, respectively, at a specific PSI, don't change it because you don't have the right weight rocker for the pressure canner. There was once a time when the Department of Agriculture actually did good work. That's why the Canning Book works. For dry storage in mylar, use good oxygen absorbers and use more than needed--they are cheap. That bag should be collapsed to the max when the absorbers have worked properly. And, still...your stuff goes bad. The best thing for you to do is sample your canned stuff soon after canning...that way you get to know what taste and smell alterations have happened after the normal high heat and pressure. Down the road if that taste/smell changes and seems weird press the eject button. And, just like out in the wild (in the old days, as well) you sample old canned stuff in very small quantities to see what happens and give it time to move down the pipes from the big acid pit to the pH neutral poop shoots. Less pathogens are better than a bunch of them.

Anonymous said...

Following on Appert, John Mason patented his "Mason Jar" in 1858, right around with Gail Borden experimenting for about 25 years to invent a canning machine that could crimp metal lids onto metal cans and exclude bacteria. His evaporated milk products then cooked in the cans, and labels were applied after the cans cooled.
Home canning has been safe for over a century, PROVIDED that you cut ZERO corners in the sanitation process: #1 being that single-use disposable lids are cryptographys's one-time pads of home canning. USE ONLY ONCE - GET IT? #2 being that bacteria mutate and from time to time you get a real step-up in tolerance to the time-at-temperature lab-tested recipes published by Ball, Kerr, your state extention office, and bernardin.ca. Consequences of #2 being NOT to trust any recipe printed more than 20 years ago unless it has been re-validated by recent lab testing. Recipies your grammaw used to use may be unsafe today; there was an e-coli mutation in 1993 that can now survive all the tried-n-true WW2 victory garden recipies. Another mutation in clostridium (botulism) in the early 2000 'oughts caught a church group by surprise in Lancaster OH, 2015** when Gramp's home-canned potato salad killed 1 and sickened 23. Botulism is NO joke.
Bernardin has their own test labs and, compared to Ball and Kerr which based their recipies on Pioneer Era palates (mostly Mormon, tee totaling spice wimps) they include beef in wine sauce (Canade includes French Canuck who have no hesitation to cook with wine for any meals) and they also have spicier Asian recipies to cater to their Pacific Rim immigrants. But their recipies are in metric.

Anonymous said...

Botulism and bad food brought to mind the below-linked episode. I was able to make the acquaintance of several of these gents during some of my training. Good times, good times…

Anonymous said...

Timely reminder. Just three days ago, was making my half-assed bean dip and one of the cans of recent Hormel chili let out a noticeable pop of pressure when I opened it. Hadn't been bulging, didn't smell bad, but after a minute of dithering (grocery prices suck) I pitched the can and got another. I don't need to roll those dice.
~evan f

Tucanae Services said...

Gotta watch what you eat. Even the 'pros' Fup -- https://www.theepochtimes.com/us/delta-flight-diverts-to-new-york-after-passengers-are-served-spoiled-food-5679755