why are my tomatoes gross
December 8, 2020 12:17 PM   Subscribe

Tonight I discovered that a can of tomatoes had turned into some kind of eldritch abomination in my cupboards. Could it be botulism? Or something else? Is there anything I can do to feel clean again? Warning: possibly disgusting description/images of foodbourne evil within.

I was in the middle of preparing a pasta sauce tonight and fetched down some cans of chopped tomatoes (in natural juices) from the cupboard. When I did so, I discovered that a dark brown/black liquid had leaked from the cans onto the ones stacked below it, as well as down the wall of the cupboard, behind the shelves and onto multiple other items.

I immediately took out all of the contents of the cupboard and dumped the gross cans in the sink. Upon examination, one of the four pack of tomatoes was slightly dented and had a strange white/pink substance on top. I poked at it with the tip of a knife and it was tough and almost skin-like rather than a soft foam or mold. I couldn't see where the liquid was coming from besides the fact that it had soaked this can and all of the others. The liquid didn't have any strong odor, perhaps a very faint vegetable smell, but definitely not the rotten potatoes/dead mouse smell I had feared.

Pics (beware - gross): evil tomatoes.

I have:
- thrown out the tomatoes, plus the cans they were sitting on and anything that was particularly hit by the dark liquid (after taking pics to show customer service)
- wiped down the insides of the cupboard and most of the items with antibacterial kitchen wipes
- put any cutlery that touched it into a hot wash (70C)
- washed my hands and had my partner wash his hands multiple times, for 1+ minute at least
- bleached the sink
- contacted the manufacturer/source of the tomatoes with photos to raise the issue

I get pretty anxious about foodbourne illnesses so I may be overreacting, but this is seriously gross and botulism is Very Serious from what I've read. Is there anything else I need to do just in case? If it is botulism and I sniffed the cans, what's the likelihood that I accidentally inhaled the spores? (I know it's probably very small, but reassuring noises would be appreciated.) Should I throw away everything that was in that cupboard and go full nuclear here, or is this sufficient?

Thanks Mefites!
posted by fight or flight to Food & Drink (11 answers total)
Best answer: Here are two different guides for disposing of spoiled canned food.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 12:20 PM on December 8, 2020

Response by poster: Thanks nouvelle-personne! That guide is good and also potentially alarming as I didn't detoxify the cans at all - I double bagged the garbage but I don't want to go and get it out again to boil it. My partner and I also weren't all that careful when we were cleaning up (we were careful because Gross but not careful as in Potential Deadly Toxin).

I also realised the liquid soaked into the wooden shelf from the cupboard and has darkened/swollen the wood slightly - should I get rid of this too, just in case? I'm thinking possibly yes.
posted by fight or flight at 12:26 PM on December 8, 2020

Best answer: If it is botulism and I sniffed the cans, what's the likelihood that I accidentally inhaled the spores? (I know it's probably very small, but reassuring noises would be appreciated.)

You're fine. From everything I'm seeing, poisoning from botulism inhalation is only possible in laboratory settings where they've super-concentrated the stuff, there have never been any cases of it in the wild. Botulism toxin is poisonous if you eat it, but it's not like ricin or something.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:35 PM on December 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Also botulism bacteria/spores are all over the place, and unless you are a baby or otherwise have an underdeveloped immune system you don't get sick from a botulism *infection* (the way you would with, say, E. coli). With botulism you don't need to worry about the spores, you need to worry about the toxin the bacteria produce in a low-oxygen environment like a can. And as showbiz_liz says, inhaling would not get you enough toxin to make you sick. If it even was botulism! Could be something else. I had a jar of curry paste that turned to some kind of horror fungus.
posted by mskyle at 12:41 PM on December 8, 2020 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks folks.

mskyle, am I right in thinking then that as long as we didn't eat anything from *within the can*, we should be fine, even if we happened to get a tiny bit of the liquid or whatever dripped somewhere we haven't noticed?
posted by fight or flight at 12:44 PM on December 8, 2020

I mean, it does say on that canning page that the toxin can get in through open cuts so maybe if you had a torn cuticle and you bathed it in a puddle of gross tomato juice that you hadn't noticed before, but yeah as long as you're not eating it I think you should be safe. I'm not a medical professional, a food preservation expert, or a toxicologist, but I think your risk level is extremely low.

Oh also good luck talking to the company... McCormick Spice sent me a coupon for a free jar of curry paste to make up from the one that left disgusting goo all over my cabinet.
posted by mskyle at 12:53 PM on December 8, 2020

Best answer: That is some insane-looking food spoilage. I wonder if the liquid fermented and that "skin" is a sort of mutant SCOBY.

Anyhoo, while it is technically possible, it is not super likely that botulism is the specific culprit here, as tomatoes are quite high in acid and botulism loves a low-acid environment. Obviously this can is horribly spoiled and I am not suggesting that it is remotely safe to eat the contents; I'm just saying that you're probably not dealing with The Big Bad of fatal foodborne toxins, here.
posted by desuetude at 12:56 PM on December 8, 2020 [6 favorites]

Response by poster: On googling, it seem look like that skin was somewhat SCOBY-ish (good lord) (also TIL what a "pellicle" is).

I'm going to assume that it's unlikely to have been botulism, since the can was also not inflated which seems to be a pretty strong sign of that particular toxin, but will be wary just in case. And will double check all cans I get from online shopping from now on!
posted by fight or flight at 1:05 PM on December 8, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Two additional relevant points:

Botulinum spores don't make you sick (for the most part). The stuff that makes you sick is the botulinum toxin that the bacteria creates as a byproduct of its growth. So even if there were botulinum spores all over your kitchen, you'd be fine as long as you didn't let them get into a nutrient-rich anaerobic environment where they could grow (like an improperly canned jar of food, or a deep puncture wound).

According to the CDC web site about botulism, the botulinum bacteria generally prefers non-acidic environments, so canned tomatoes are particularly unlikely to host botulinum.
posted by firechicago at 1:43 PM on December 8, 2020 [3 favorites]

Yeah it's definitely at least partially fungal, and yes odd SCOBY-ish stuff is my guess too. You could probably eat the pellicle, but I wouldn't ;)

For the future, looks like it got damaged due to a mix of the 4-pack/shrink wrap and the pop top. If they were loose they could jostle to absorb more impact and if they had regular tops it wouldn't have popped.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:31 PM on December 8, 2020 [1 favorite]

You could probably eat the pellicle, but I wouldn't ;)

reading this thread makes me immensely thankful to the first humans that ate cheese, beer, kimchi, soy sauce, and other food inventions based around a process that lets biology run amuck in an awesome way.
posted by th3ph17 at 2:11 PM on December 9, 2020 [2 favorites]

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