Lukewarm pruno, low in acid, salt, and oxygen, is a paradise for C. botulinum. Spores can contaminate the brew in any number of ways, but in the case of the 2011 Utah outbreak, epidemiologists fingered the baked potato. Similar potato-borne pruno outbreaks occurred in California state prisons in Riverside County in 2004 and Monterey County in 2005, and twice in Pinal County, Arizona in 2012. In the outside world, improperly baked potatoes cause occasional restaurant botulism outbreaks. These episodes often involve potatoes baked in aluminum foil, as foil insulates the durable C. botulinum spores from lethal cooking temperatures. When the wrapped potatoes are removed from the oven, the stressed—but intact—spores germinate to produce toxin in the moist, warm, airtight environment.
The long-recognized relationship between baked potatoes and botulism earned the troublesome tuber a classification as a “potentially hazardous food” in the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Code. Potatoes, like C. botulinum, grow in the soil, and botulinum spores seem quite at home on their surface. Proper cooking and storage kills spores and inhibits toxin formation. In the case of the Utah outbreak, spores probably germinated in the warm, sealed container during the “undetermined number of weeks” the potato spent in hiding prior to being used in pruno. In response to multiple botulism outbreaks from potato-based pruno, the Arizona State Prison Complex-Eynman banned potatoes from prison meals.
Food and drink have been cohabitating with C. botulinum as long as humans have been sealing them in containers. With safe prepared food on every supermarket shelf, it is easy to forget that civilization had to learn the fundamental lessons of food storage the hard way—through sausage and white whale poisoning. As local food sourcing grows in popularity, more environmentally and health conscious Americans are surrendering their Oscar Meyer for the home pickled, smoked, canned, dried, and fermented foods of generations past. As they rediscover the richness, independence, and simplicity of do-it-yourself cuisine, they must not forget the lessons of Kerner, van Ermengem, and the early pioneers of food microbiology.
In the 20th century, government oversight of commercial meat production undoubtedly saved lives. Botulism outbreaks are now headline-grabbing events, rather than just another day in Stuttgart. Though today, many aspiring restaurateurs and meat curers feel stifled by the rigorous certification process required by local and federal food safety inspectors before they can legally sling their salami to the public. Under the current system, regulators set standards, and producers must prove that their products meet them.
Underground Meats, a Wisconsin meat curer and culinary sibling of Forequarter, a James Beard semi-finalist restaurant, proposes an innovative solution. With more than $49,000 raised on the fundraising website Kickstarter, underground meatmaster Jonny Hunter aims to develop and publish an open-source food safety plan for the production dry-cured salami. This plan, known as a “Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points,” proves to regulators that a recipe is safe. In the artisan salami world, HACCP’s are typically closely guarded industry secrets, given the time, money, and scientific resources invested in their development.