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Sous Vide Food Safety

In the Getting Started with Sous Vide Forum
Sous-Vide Safety
Vacuum-packing has been used to enhance the storage life of cooked products, up to 30 days at 34°F. About 90% of the bacteria that cause food spoilage need oxygen to survive. Since vacuum packaging removes most of the air (and therefore oxygen) from food, spoilage is slowed drastically if the proper steps are taken. Oxidation witch cause food to discolor and reduce nutrients is also greatly reduced by utilizing vacuum-packing. However some foods like cut apples and artichokes do not turn brown quickly in vacuum pouches. In long-term storage, vacuum bags can prevent the oxygen-produced rancidity of unsaturated fats. Low-moisture products like dehydrated fruit chips tend to stay crispy indefinitely in the low-moisture vacuum environment.
Unfortunately, some bacteria that cause illness (pathogens) are not inhibited by a lack of oxygen. In fact, some of the most dangerous bacteria thrive only in the absence of oxygen. If sous-vide products are kept in unsafe conditions, these pathogens can grow to dangerous levels without the simultaneous spoilage that would normally signal their presence. This is why it is important to adhere to safety rules when using sous-vide. You must have a specific HACCP plan that has been approved by your State Health Department that addresses these issues. Then you must make sure that all the steps in your plan are being done 100% of the time. Your holding temperature should be at or below 34°F. (1°C)
Vacuum bagged foods are very effective in controlling cross-contamination that accounts for nearly 90% of all food borne illness outbreaks. The food is handled minimally before being placed in a sterile environment. Even if an employee has failed to properly wash their hands or change their gloves, their contaminated hands/gloves, cannot come in contact with the bagged food. Transportation of SV food is easy, and each bag is individually protected from spills and other dangers, such as a raw product dripping onto a cooked product.


5 Replies So Far

Thanks for the safety reminder, John. I worry that, in general, often concerns raised about food safety seem to engender an emotional public murmuring about the "risk" that can evolve to become widely accepted as "fact". Botulism from cooking sous vide might be an example.
No one can argue that the botulinum organism requires an anaerobic growing environment. Similarly, evacuating the air and thus the oxygen from food in a bag creates an anaerobic condition. But how significant is this theoretical risk? Certainly significant enough that it would be foolish to ignore it. But before it becomes enshrined as a dangerous "fact" regarding sous vide, I would like to know: 1.)Has there ever been a documented report of sous vide related botulism? 2.)Is anyone studying the risk scientifically? 3.)Is cooking sous vide too recent an innovation to site the apparently safe past history? 4.)What do experts say?
Botulism is closely monitored as a reportable disease in the USA. http://www.cdc.gov/nationalsurveillance/botulism_surveillance.html
I don't see any sous vide reports, but what is the reality of the risk? Does anyone know?
I do not know if there is a documented case of food born illness caused by botulism attributed to SV, but I sure don't want anyone to be the first case! The fact that we have ideal conditions for this to happen should make us do everything we can to prevent it, including education of all those engaging in SV food preparations. The FDA wants a minimum of two barriers to food spoilage, such as low Ph (acid), low Au (water activity), some kind of chemical preservative or temperatures below vegetative levels. Keeping vacuumed packaged proteins below 36° F. is an easy and effective way to keep out SV food safe.
Hi Michael/John. I agree that botulism is extremely dangerous and reasonable steps to avoid development of the toxin need to be taken. But following on from Michael's comments I feel that we bandy about the severity without much understanding of real development/transfer risks.

In the UK where I live, botulism is a reportable disease, and nationally published data shows that between 1980-2010, there were a total of 33 confirmed cases, none of which where traced to UK domestic food preparation (26 from a single industrial outbreak, and the rest from home made products imported into the UK). I think canning is a significant cause of botulism in other countries but we don't have the same enthusiasm for this process in the UK.

We do need to be careful that we don't put people off sous vide because of references to particular bacteria/toxins/etc without some explanation of the actual risks. The evidence from the UK suggests that whilst botulism is a particularly nasty disease, it is extremely rare in domestic situations.
Hi Michael/John. I agree that botulism is extremely dangerous and reasonable steps to avoid development of the toxin need to be taken. But following on from Michael's comments I feel that we bandy about the severity without much understanding of real development/transfer risks.

In the UK where I live, botulism is a reportable disease, and nationally published data shows that between 1980-2010, there were a total of 33 confirmed cases, none of which where traced to UK domestic food preparation (26 from a single industrial outbreak, and the rest from home made products imported into the UK). I think canning is a significant cause of botulism in other countries but we don't have the same enthusiasm for this process in the UK.

We do need to be careful that we don't put people off sous vide because of references to particular bacteria/toxins/etc without some explanation of the actual risks. The evidence from the UK suggests that whilst botulism is a particularly nasty disease, it is extremely rare in domestic situations.
...and with the increased popularity/usage of SV, we will get any dire warnings, soon.
yeah, I'm addicted to the food network, especially the Iron Chef shows. SV was a once in a while thing, but now every show has at least one food item being SV... and when I try to spy the temps, they are very low.
Granted it is a TV show, and 'reality' is a misnomer, but if SV is commonly dangerous, the professionals will discover it very soon.
I'm sure we all agree that food safety is a very important factor. But, to my thinking, SV aids healthier food preparations much more than it can hinder.
Still, vigilence; especially in the vacuum process, is a good thing.


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