You are on page 1of 2

January 2013

Technical information note

Cheese and organics in oil the risks of botulism
As our artisan and specialist cheese makers develop new and innovative products that are attractive to the eye and palate, there may be a hidden danger lurking within the herbs, spices and vegetables that are being added to such products. These organics of plant origin may contain Clostridium botulinum spores that could grow and produce a potentially deadly neurotoxin. This occurs because the product is in oil an environment that excludes oxygen. reduced environment, this provides the right conditions in a milk-based product for these organisms, if present, to grow. Consequently, further hurdles need to be in place which will prevent C. botulinum growth and toxin production. Historically, canned processed cheese is an example of where clostridial growth has proven problematic, as it is a shelf-stable unrefrigerated product, where the oxygen levels are very low or non-existent. That is why manufacturers of canned processed cheese have used the preservative action of nisin at levels known to inhibit the outgrowth of Clostridium botulinum spores along with a combination of sub-inhibitory levels of pH, salt and emulsifying agents. C. botulinum strains have been categorised into four phenotypic subgroups. Only two of these are generally linked to outbreaks of botulism in humans. Each subgroup has differing minimal growth requirements and resistance to factors such as pH, temperature, water activity and salt. There are seven different types of botulinum toxin produced A, B, C1, D, E, F and G. Types A, B, E and F have been implicated in food-borne incidents of botulism. There are three types of human botulism: foodborne intoxication, infant botulism and wound botulism. Of these, it is the former, in which the organism has grown and produced the toxin prior to ingestion, that is of concern to food manufacturers. 1. Foodborne intoxication: consuming food in which the organism has grown and produced toxin. 2. Infant botulism: where the spores germinate in the small intestine and produce toxin from there. 3. Wound botulism: where a deep wound can become infected and the organism grows and produces toxin in the oxygen-free depths of the wound. Botulism is one of the most severe foodborne diseases, as only very small amounts of the toxin (one microgram, or one millionth of a gram) can kill an adult. It causes flaccid paralysis of muscles, which can be extremely dangerous, as we need the function of our muscles simply to breathe. A patient who has succumbed to botulism may be conscious but unable to talk or show any signs of activity. The effects of total paralysis can last for months or longer, requiring substantial rehabilitation for the sufferer.

What is botulism?
In recent years there have been sporadic reports of people falling ill with botulism after eating foods that were not adequately preserved to prevent the outgrowth of Clostridium botulinum, the organism responsible for producing the botulinum toxin. C. botulinum is classified as a Gram positive, spore-forming rod that grows anaerobically, and is naturally present in the soil and environment. There are reports that very low levels may be present in raw milk possibly at levels of one spore per litre. For most foods there is only a very low possibility that the organism will grow and produce toxin because they retain some level of oxygen in the product. Pasteurisation will destroy any vegetative cells present in raw milk. However, pasteurisation may also trigger the germination of any spores present, as they are not destroyed by the heat treatment. If oxygen is removed from the product during processing such as in canning, or placing the product into an oxygen-

Feta cheese with herbs in oil

i n tegr i t y & a ssu ra n ce

Page 2

Biological inclusions in speciality dairy products

Artisan cheese products have been developed to give the natural appearance of combining the product (for example, feta cheese) with olive or some other high quality oil. Other organic inclusions such as garlic, chives, parsley and rosemary sprigs have also been added to the cheese or the oil. This may, however, inadvertently jeopardise the safety of the product by potentially introducing Clostridium spp, including C. botulinum. Vegetables in oil (garlic, mushrooms, peppers and eggplant) have been implicated in a number of botulism outbreaks. There is a widely held belief that the addition of oil to foods will have an increased preservative effect. The opposite is true for dairy or in fact any products in oil if anaerobic organisms such as Clostridium species are present, as these conditions are favourable for their growth. It is possible that spores of this organism could be present in dairy products in low numbers because it is widespread in the environment, predominantly in the soil. The risk of this resulting in illness to consumers is mitigated however, if the product contains oxygen, is acidified to less than pH 4.5, or is effectively refrigerated, as these hurdles will prevent C. botulinum growth and toxin production.

Key points to consider

The incidence of botulism illness caused by dairy products to date is rare. Manufacturers need to be aware that using oil as a storage medium for dairy products could be potentially dangerous, especially if plant inclusions are present. Manufacturers should take special care to properly process the organic inclusions to prevent growth and toxin production by Clostridium botulinum if present, in addition to the usual good hygienic practices required in their food safety program.

Further references
P Aureli, G Franciosa and C Scalfaro, Clostridium spp, Encyclopedia of Dairy Sciences. Vol. 4, 2nd Edition (Eds. J Fuquay, P Fox & P McSweeney), Elsevier, Amsterdam 2011 pp. 4753. B Blakistone, R Chuyate, D Kautter Jr, J Charbonneau and K Suit, Efficacy of Oxonia Active against selected spore formers. J Food Protection, vol. 62, no. 3, 1999, p. 262. CSIRO. Preservation of vegetables in oil and vinegar 2011. < preservation-in-oil-vinegar.aspx> HM Solomon and DA Kautter, Outgrowth and toxin production by Clostridium botulinum in bottled chopped garlic, J Food Protection, vol. 51, no. 11, 1988, p. 862. A Szabo and AM Gibson, Clostridium botulinum. In AD Hocking (ed) Foodborne microorganisms of public health significance, 6th edn, AIFST, NSW Branch, Food Microbiology Group, Waterloo, NSW 2003, pp. 505542.

Making it safe
It is essential that dairy manufacturers are aware of the possible ramifications of changing the immediate environment for products to an anaerobic (oxygen-free) state. If a dairy product is to be produced where those hurdles described above cannot be assured, and could allow clostridia to grow, then the food safety program will need to be modified to overcome any potential problems. In order to render cheese products contained in oil safe, it is necessary to acidify the organic inclusion to a pH below 4.5, prior to their addition to the cheese. This can be achieved using one of the organic acids (for example, lactic, citric or acetic). Treatment with some more powerful sanitisers such as peracetic acid, and with a hydrogen peroxide additive, has been shown to be effective in inactivating spores of clostridia. Refrigeration also plays an essential part in the storage of such products, but manufacturers cannot always control the storage temperatures once the product has left their factory. Thus refrigeration should not be relied upon as the sole hurdle to prevent clostridial growth.

Further information
Further food safety technical information is available at Or contact Dairy Food Safety Victoria on (03) 9810 5900 or

This document is intended to be used as a general guide only and is not a comprehensive statement of all the relevant considerations with respect to your particular circumstances, nor does it comprise, or substitute for, legal or professional advice. DFSV does not guarantee the accuracy, reliability, currency or completeness of the information. Links to other websites are provided as a service to users and do not constitute endorsement, nor are we able to give assurances of the accuracy of their content. DFSV accepts no legal liability arising from, or connected to, any reliance on this document.

i n tegr i t y & a ssu ra n ce