Can Tupperware cause botulism?

March 19, 2004

Dear Cecil:

I worked for several years doing construction in arctic villages in Alaska. When I first got there I heard a story about how when Tupperware started making the rounds in rural Alaska the Yupik women used it to make fermented seal oil, which is the Eskimo version of ketchup. But the Tupperware made such a tight seal the oil not only fermented but created an extremely toxic brew resulting in numerous deaths. What's up with that? Is it crapola or is burping tantamount to festered oil?

Pleasure to get your letter, Vic — I can't remember the last time I had a chance to put a billion-dollar corporation into a five-alarm panic. My inquiry regarding your story elicited the following terse response from a Tupperware vice president: "Tupperware has no knowledge of the incident … and therefore cannot confirm or deny it." Noted. But while there's no reason to implicate Tupperware specifically, Eskimo foods and airtight containers don't mix. One observes the following data points:

  • Anaerobic bacteria — that is, those that thrive in oxygen-free environments — are among the most virulent known. One such bacterium is Clostridium botulinum, producer of deadly botulism toxin. Other clostridia to watch out for include C. tetani, which causes tetanus, and C. perfringens, which gets into wounds and causes gas gangrene, an affliction that's as bad as it sounds. Anaerobic bacteria are the ones that make improperly sterilized canned goods puff up like a football. Food in this condition should be destroyed immediately, unless you're serving brunch to, say, Osama bin Laden.
  • On August 17, 2001, the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, published by the federal Centers for Disease Control, noted that three persons in a southwest Alaskan village had come down with botulism after eating fermented beaver tail and paw. "Two patients developed respiratory failure and required intubation and mechanical ventilation," the article informs us. "One of the two intubated patients suffered cardiac arrest" but was revived. All three were taken to intensive care, where one needed a tracheostomy tube and then a month on a ventilator. According to MMWR, "In this outbreak, the tail and paws had been wrapped in a paper rice sack and stored for up to 3 months in the entry of a patient's house. Some of the beaver tail and paw had been added to the sack as recently as 1 week before it was eaten." No mention is made of Tupperware.
  • Alaska has the highest botulism rate in the U.S. and one of the highest worldwide. According to the CDC, close to 40 percent of food-borne botulism cases reported in the U.S. between 1990 and 2000 (103 of 263) occurred in Alaska, one of the least populous states. Very rarely is Tupperware known to have been involved.  For example, in a 2002 outbreak reported in the Anchorage Daily News, eight people became ill with suspected botulism after eating "muktuk from a beluga whale they found dead along the shore." I mean, really.
  • Later in the same article, though, we find the following: "Most botulism cases in Alaska have been linked to preparation and storage of traditional Native foods, including fermented foods [and] seal oil … Between 1950 and 2002, Alaska had 122 outbreaks of botulism involving 248 people, [all of whom were Natives]. Botulism cases increased from 1950 to 1997, though health officials aren't exactly sure why … Some Alaska Natives have switched from traditional fermenting practices — burying salmon heads, beaver tails and other foods in underground pits - to placing the food in airtight containers set above ground or in other warmer environments that are more conducive to producing the botulism toxin."
  • According to a 2003 planning document from the Alaska Department of Health & Social Services, in the late 90s a woman contracted botulism after eating "stink eggs" at a dinner party in Sitka. The stink eggs — basically a mixture of salmon roe and seal oil — had been fermented in Tupperware on top of the refrigerator. To confirm the toxin's source, two public health nurses had to go Dumpster diving until they found a discarded Tupperware container full of ripe stink eggs.

So you're the marketing manager for Tupperware's Alaska division. You've got time-honored and for all you know sacred native food-preparation practices on the one hand, botulism on the other, and your company's reliably, nay, proudly airtight container in the middle. You know there's nothing especially pernicious about Tupperware — in this context, even a bucket sealed with plastic wrap could cause trouble — but nonetheless the brand's good name is in peril. What do you do? Put a little slip inside each Tupperware container saying "Not Recommended for Making Stink Eggs"? Apply for a job at Sears selling socket-wrench sets? Well, suck it up, chum, things could be worse. You could be a public health nurse.

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