Outbreak of Foodborne Botulism Traced From Food Sold at Texas Salvage Store

Although salvage stores offer discounted prices on household goods, salvage food shoppers may be getting more than they bargained for in the long run. An article published in the new issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases, now available online, reports that an outbreak of foodborne botulism in Texas in 2001, involving 16 cases, was traced back to storing conditions at a salvage store.

A salvage store is a facility involved in the buying, selling, reconditioning, and disposing of merchandise that may have been partially damaged. Usually the items are surplus inventory or have been subjected to prolonged or improper storage, loss of label or identity, or abnormal environmental conditions. Salvage stores offer low prices on foods compared to supermarkets, and often sell in bulk. While the food may be unspoiled initially, damaged packaging can lead to contamination. Improper refrigeration and open containers can lead to spoilage, and the potential for sick customers.

Salvage stores provide a useful service to the community. The low prices attract people who cannot afford to shop in standard supermarkets. Dr. Pavani Kalluri of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the lead author of the article, notes that when the Texas salvage store was closed for investigation, many customers were upset because they had no place else to buy food. While all salvage stores are subject to inspections, the customers can take additional precautions against buying spoiled food. Guidelines are the same for buying food in any place. Buyers should inspect the packaging to make sure it is intact; the food should not have any mold or signs of decay. Kalluri says that mold suggests spoilage and means that the food was held at temperatures that allowed mold to grow. This indicates a potential risk of other pathogens being present.

Although salvage stores should be responsible for maintaining the integrity of commercial food, customers should maintain standards of health. Kalluri's final recommendation for shopping is to always "err on the side of being safe."

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