Exploding sauerkraut leads to botulism scare


David sent me this story about a can of sauerkraut that exploded in a secondary school in Prince George, B.C., prompting a student quarantine and a hazmat investigation. They were concerned about a botulism outbreak.

I don't really have a problem with the response, but I was disappointed that the news story failed to mention that "the popular German sausage topping" is never associated with botulism. It's too sour. Botulism can't survive in an environment where the pH is 4.6 or less. Sauerkraut is about 10 more acidic than that.

Above, Sandor Ellix Katz talks about the difference between canning and fermenting. Katz, a long term HIV/AIDS survivor who lives on a queer intentional community in Tennessee, is a "fermentation fetishist." He is the author of the outstanding Wild Fermentation, a book that shows you how to make a wide variety of fermented foods: beer, wine, mead, miso, tempeh, sourdough bread, yogurt, cheese, and other more exotic foods. I highly recommend Wild Fermentation.

Exploding sauerkraut brings in Hazmat team

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  1. I’ve tried to convince my wife that sauerkraut is great food because it’s pretty much impossible for it to go bad, but she refuses to try it.

    I really wish it were more popular here in the US, because there’s no better way to eat a hot dog than with mustard and chilled sauerkraut. When I ask for it, I usually get a weird look.

    1. Really?

      Here in BC, sauerkraut is pretty common. Every street hotdog vendor will have it, hell even the hot dog topping stand at 7-11 has it.

      What’s with BC in the news today? First, there was acid on gummy bears, and no one in the media even suggested that “pushers” are using them to lure children off playgrounds to get them addicted to LSD using gummy bears… Next, there’s an *explosion* in a school, and we didn’t even shut down any airports or call in the joint terrorism task force.. What gives, BC? Won’t someone think of the children?

  2. They quarantined people in response to fears about botulism? Last I checked (last minute), botulism is produced by ingesting a toxin or getting the toxin in a wound or as infant botulism. It’s not infectious, unless you’re an infant (<1 year old); even then, the bacterium infect the host with spores, not by using food as a vector. A quarantine would do exactly nothing.

    So much fail...

  3. Sauerkraut done right would be acidic. But if it doesn’t have the right microbes, who knows what the pH it will have.

    Bu quarantine? Botulism only grows in anaerobic conditions (such as canning). Cooking destroys the toxin (it’s unstable).

  4. Maybe I’m missing something, but wouldn’t the explosion of a can of sauerkraut imply that the food might have been improperly prepared? Can improperly prepared sauerkraut grow botulinum?

  5. Was it real sauerkraut? I’m not sure you can get fermented sauerkraut in a U.S. grocery store, don’t know about B.C. The fake stuff is canned with vinegar I believe – which a bit of research confirms should be too acidic for botulism. The problem is that fake sauerkraut cannot explode from fermentation…I believe someone in the kitchen should know what they are serving either way.

  6. I recently completed a food safety class and volunteer for the local extension office answering the food safety line and teaching classes. Indeed, properly prepared ‘kraut should be too acidic for botulism, but something is clearly wrong if a jar of it explodes. I have heard of jars popping their lids, but this makes it sound like it went off like a bomb and showered the class? An exaggeration, I hope! I’d like to think the students involved were quarantined just because they weren’t sure what they were exposed to. It sounds like as soon as they determined what it was they sent everyone home.

    Home fermentation is becoming quite hip :) I have a crock of dill pickles bubbling away in my laundry room right now. I’ll have to get that book and try some other fermenting.

  7. Bryan, there are a few brands of fermented pickles and sauerkraut available in the US, but most are regional kosher brands. However, Hebrew National is available nation-wide and is fermented (or at least it doesn’t have anything acidic on its ingredients list, and it contains Sodium Bisulfate, which is commonly used to stop fermentation processes).

  8. When sauerkraut is criminalized, only criminals will have sauerkraut.

    Do I think there should be an exception made for Kimchi? I do not.

  9. Sauerkraut can absolutely definitely go bad if it isn’t prepared right. I don’t know about botulism, but it can certainly grow other things.

    I had a big jar of sauerkraut that I was fermenting in the cupboard. The problem was, though, that while I had sufficient liquid covering it in the beginning, I neither adequately covered it nor kept a close enough eye on it. The next thing I knew (several weeks later), the liquid level had evaporated well below the top of the cabbage, and the top of the cabbage had started to get moldy.

    Actually, come to think about it, it’s still in my cupboard…

  10. Kimchi in jars explodes when you open it. If it doesn’t explode, it hasn’t fermented properly and you probably should throw it out.

      1. Uhh, I think you’re off way base here. Every (delicious, fermented, lively) jar of kimchee I’ve ever bought (here in Berkeley) has the active tang of fermentation on the tongue, and bubbles vigorously when first opened (which is one of the best things about it). That’s not the nature of canned things (to take nothing away from them, either) which are notably still.

        1. Most jarred kimchi in US Korean markets is sold in glass jars with non-sealing plastic lids which allow gas to escape. That’s why they wrap it in a plastic bag at the checkout. The supermarket stuff (King’s etc.) used to be jar-canned to make it easier to handle, but I think they switched to a live culture to make it taste better.

  11. I once saw an interview with a hundred-year-old British guy who had fought in the First World War; and when he was asked what the secret to his long life was, he answered, with a twinkle in his eye, “I never ate sauerkraut.”

  12. I have two Gärtopf crocks burping away beside me. They are the business. They have a moat of water around the top that the lid sits in creating an airlock and pretty much guarantee perfect sauerkraut and pickles.
    I can hardly wait to dig in.
    I had never had sauerkraut on hotdogs (I’m in the U.K.) until I made my own but now they just aren’t the same without it.
    I highly recommend Sandor’s book too. It walked me through so many fermented foods, until by now it’s second nature.

  13. Mmmm…Elgin, TX sausage with sauerkraut!

    Mmmm…hamburgers with bread and butter pickles!

    Mmmm…salted beer!

    I’m getting hungry…

  14. hmmm, sauerkraut… i think tomorrow i’ll go out and buy some. I already have a few nürnberger sausages, so with some mashed potatoes it’s gonna be a feast :-)

    Thank god it’s cold season soon again, it will be more common again around here then!

  15. I would agree that a hot dog without sauerkraut isn’t the same- a hot dog without sauerkraut is edible. Mind you, I hate any pickled food I’ve encountered- pickling strikes me as something people should have stopped doing with the invention of the refrigerator. But bless all you who keep it up! When the zombies come you’ll save us all with your food preservation skills!

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