Foil and potatoes - Aluminum Assn. presents a response.

Note: My February column on the safety of baked potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil elicited a response from the Aluminum Assn., Washington, DC. In the interest of objectivity and fairness, I've invited David Parker, president of the association, to contribute this month's column.

- Stanley Sacharow

"Unwrapping the Myths of Foil and Potatoes"

By David Parker, President The Aluminum Assn.

Aluminum foil, like so many other useful household goods, is one of those products Americans use regularly without a second thought - and well they should. Recently, however, a rehash of unfounded concerns has resurfaced. An article by Paper, Film & Foil CONVERTER columnist Stanley Sacharow may have perpetuated the claim that a 1994 botulism outbreak in an El Paso restaurant could be traced to the aluminum foil packaging surrounding potatoes that were baked for use in a skordalia dip. The facts do not support the premise.

We regret that anyone became ill, regardless of the cause. Mr. Sacharow is correct to flag potential health concerns for consumers and the foil industry when warranted. What was not included in the article, however, is that the cause of the outbreak in the El Paso restaurant was ultimately traced to improper food preparation and that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is tracking research at the Univ. of Wisconsin on the safety of aluminum foil in wrapped baked potatoes.

The recently completed Univ. of Wisconsin study confirms that there is little reason to believe that aluminum foil wrapping was responsible for the toxin to develop in circumstances such as those cited in the El Paso outbreak. The study was unable to detect any toxin in aluminum foil-wrapped potatoes after 24 hours and found that it would take as many as three or four days for toxins to develop under the conditions that existed in the El Paso situation. According to Dr. Frederick Angulo, the CDC epidemiologist quoted in Mr. Sacahrow's article, the study "reassured" him on the safety of aluminum foil.

In fact, early on Dr. Angulo had also suggested there were "unanswered questions" in the El Paso incident. His suspicion was validated when an investigation found there were several abuses of food preparation responsible for the outbreak.

For instance, the oven temperature at which the potatoes were cooked was set at 450 deg, but the oven was found to have a real temperature of 371 deg. Perhaps most critically, the partially-baked potatoes were left out at room temperature for 48 hours before being cut up for the dip.

We can't know if the botulism would have occurred had only one of these factors been present, but the combination provides unmistakable clues as to the source for the toxin release. Aluminum foil, like many other inherently safe products, is most effective when used properly. And when it is, it is recognized as the best protection against oxygen seeping into food.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, botulism is not a common food-borne disease in the continental US, and commercial outbreaks are especially rare. In the book Casarett and Doull's Toxicology: The Basic Science of Poison, Sanford A. Miller, former FDA director of the Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, says, "The development of C. Botulinum is dependent on complex interactions between several factors such as the storage conditions of the food products, product preparation, especially temperatures employed, and certain intrinsic properties of the food."

In other words, the botulism developed because of improperly stored potatoes. It is unlikely that any air-tight container could prevent the toxin from developing if the food is left out at room temperature for a long period of time.

Consumer confidence in products such as aluminum foil is an important and delicate trust. We in the aluminum industry do not take lightly challenges to its safety, and we know from the experience of other industries that it is best to fully investigate any credible charge for the protection of both consumers and the industry.

That's why we support the CDC study, but it's also why we ask columnists, consumers, and others to be sure all the facts are in place before putting the reputation of a product in jeopardy.

Stanley Sacharow has been in the flexible packaging industry for almost 35 years. His company, The Packaging Group, is an organizer of targeted conferences and a consultant to the international packaging/converting industry.

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