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Cut OnionsCut Onions Contamination - The Story

Is this True?  Snopes says it is FALSE!  The article below began circulating in March 2008. It was penned by Sarah McCann, who writes online about food-related matters, including recipes. (The pen name "Zola Gorgon" is a play on gorgonzola, a veined blue Italian cheese known for its strong flavor and distinctive odor.)

 Mike Mullins of Mullins Food Products had this to say about the tour of his company's facilities that resulted in the Internet rumor about food poisonings from onions and mayonnaise:

"There is some truth to the story, but the two examples from the plant tour look to have been combined. The potato in the potato salad is much more likely to spoil than the mayo. [...] The ph level for mayonaise is in the low 4's and is a poor environment for the growth of many of the organisms that can make you ill. A good rule of thumb is that if it is sold at room temperature in your retail store that it is probably safe. Any product can be mishandled and when left in suitable temperatures for growth the products can become unsafe for consumption. Often times what is mixed with mayo or salad dressings (tuna, potatoes, vegetables, etc.) can become more readily contaminated than the base of the salad dressing or mayonaise.

The second example used on the tour referred to the onions. The example given was that in a warm environment an onion that was sliced is a great environment for growth. The ballpark example referred to the hot dog dressing table where fresh onions were put on top of onions that already started to show contamination. Onions are easily contaminated once the protection of the outer skin has been removed. Onions, potatoes, and eggs are handled with extreme care in the food industry once the outer layer of protection has been removed. Quite a few food poisonings have been traced back to onion contaminations, and we throw out onions after 10 days even though we cook any onions we use in our facility. The stories were used as examples for "old wives tales" for various foods. The mayo is usually the ingredient that gets the blame and we try to point out that there might be a lot more going on than meets the eye."

Cut Onions Contamination - The Story

(The Editor received this as a post on Face Book)

Onions and BacteriaWow- very interesting....Everyone should read ONIONS! I had never heard this!!! PLEASE READ TO THE END: IMPORTANT In 1919 when the flu killed 40 million people there was this Doctor that visited the many farmers to see if he could help them combat the flu... Many of the farmers and their families had contracted it and many died.

The doctor came upon this one farmer and to his surprise, everyone was very healthy. When the doctor asked what the farmer was doing that was different the wife replied that she had placed an unpeeled onion in a dish in the rooms of the home, (probably only two rooms back then). The doctor couldn't believe it and asked if he could have one of the onions and place it under the microscope. She gave him one and when he did this, he did find the flu virus in the onion. It obviously absorbed the bacteria, therefore, keeping the family healthy.

Now, I heard this story from my hairdresser. She said that several years ago, many of her employees were coming down with the flu, and so were many of her customers. The next year she placed several bowls with onions around in her shop. To her surprise, none of her staff got sick. It must work. Try it and see what happens. We did it last year and we never got the flu.

Now there is a P. S. to this for I sent it to a friend in Oregon who regularly contributes material to me on health issues. She replied with this most interesting experience about onions:

Thanks for the reminder. I don't know about the farmer's story...but, I do know that I contacted pneumonia, and, needless to say, I was very ill... I came across an article that said to cut both ends off an onion put it into an empty jar, and place the jar next to the sick patient at night. It said the onion would be black in the morning from the germs...sure enough it happened just like that...the onion was a mess and I began to feel better.

Another thing I read in the article was that onions and garlic placed around the room saved many from the black plague years ago. They have powerful antibacterial, antiseptic properties.

This is the other note. Lots of times when we have stomach problems we don't know what to blame. Maybe it's the onions that are to blame. Onions absorb bacteria is the reason they are so good at preventing us from getting colds and flu and is the very reason we shouldn't eat an onion that has been sitting for a time after it has been cut open. LEFT OVER ONIONS ARE POISONOUS.
 I had the wonderful privilege of touring Mullins Food Products, Makers of mayonnaise. Questions about food poisoning came up, and I wanted to share what I learned from a chemist. Ed, who was our tour guide, is a food chemistry whiz. During the tour, someone asked if we really needed to worry about mayonnaise?  People are always worried that mayonnaise will spoil. Ed's answer will surprise you. Ed said that all commercially-made mayo is completely safe. "It doesn't even have to be refrigerated. No harm in refrigerating it, but it's not really necessary." He explained that the pH in mayonnaise is set at a point that bacteria could not survive in that environment. 

He then talked about the summer picnic, with the bowl of potato salad sitting on the table, and how everyone blames the mayonnaise when someone gets sick. Ed says that, when food poisoning is reported, the first thing the officials look for is when the 'victim' last ate ONIONS and where those onions came from (in the potato salad?).  Ed says it's not the mayonnaise (as long as it's not homemade mayo) that spoils in the outdoors. It's probably the ONIONS, and if not the onions, it's the POTATOES. He explained onions are a huge magnet for bacteria, especially uncooked onions.

You should never plan to keep a portion of a sliced onion.. He says it's not even safe if you put it in a zip-lock bag and put it in your refrigerator. It's already contaminated enough just by being cut open and out for a bit, that it can be a danger to you (and doubly watch out for those onions you put in your hotdogs at the baseball park!).

Ed says if you take the leftover onion and cook it like crazy you'll probably be okay, but if you slice that leftover onion and put on your sandwich, you're asking for trouble. Both the onions and the moist potato in a potato salad, will attract and grow bacteria faster than any commercial mayonnaise will,  even begin to break down.

Also, dogs should never eat onions. Their stomachs cannot metabolize onions. Please remember it is dangerous to cut an onion and try to use it to cook the next day, it becomes highly poisonous for even a single night and creates toxic bacteria which may cause adverse stomach infections because of excess bile secretions and even food poisoning. Please pass this on to all you love and care about. — with Adonain Danny Rivera.

The Claim

The claims made in the article about onions (and to a lesser extent, potatoes) are harder to substantiate. Germ transmission does occur more quickly when surfaces nasty microbes are lurking on or items that become contaminated by them are wet rather than dry; but it's a great leap from realizing that cut surfaces of onions and potatoes are wet to concluding either of these vegetables are "a huge magnet for bacteria."

Also, cut bulb onions are highly acidic; the act of slicing them causes the enzymes they contain to generate sulphenic acids, the gas form of which has made many an unwary onion chopper cry. Given that it is mayonnaise's acidity that retards the growth of bacteria, it's hard to conclude that cut onions would be a hospitable place for germs or bacteria to take up residence, let alone a magnet that drew them from the air.

However, long-standing superstition posits that very thing. It has long been asserted that keeping a plate of cut raw onions in the house will draw illness-causing germs from the air, thereby rendering the home free of contamination. These print sightings gathered by folklorists Iona Opie and Moira Tatum showcase that belief:

The onion is cut up and stood in an old tin-plate. Then you place it in the room where the sick child sleeps. The onion draws the complaint into itself, and when the child is better care must be taken to see that the onion is properly burnt.
When there's flu about, I puts a plate of cut up onion in every room. That's what keeps colds away ... All the cold germs goes into they.
I fondly remember the smell of my mother's window sill adorned with half onions. She swore by the legend that the onions captured any incoming germs and purified the air.


Mind you, superstition also asserts that it is unlucky to keep cut onions around, as these further sightings gathered by Opie and Tatum demonstrate:

To have a cut onion lying about in the house breeds distempers.
An old servant (Essex) ... recently complained that ... Spanish onions ... were too big. When an obvious method of getting over that difficulty was suggested, she replied, 'Oh, no! that would never do! It's so unlucky to have a cut onion in the house.'
Special small onions are being grown for me as I am liable to keep half a cut onion from one meal to another, which I am assured is highly dangerous.

Are cut bulb onions therefore a health scourge one must be on guard against? No scientific evidence points in that direction. What reports there are that tie onions to outbreaks of food poisoning almost exclusively name green onions (also known as long onions or scallions) as the culprit. Although both sorts could be exposed to e. coli and other nasties during their time in the ground or while being handled during the move to market, green onions are chopped up and eaten as is, whereas the paperish brown peel that covers bulb onions and which is discarded rather than ingested acts as a shield against contamination.

The one instance we found that fingered bulb onions as the transmitter in a food poisoning case was the 1984 sickening of 28 people in Peoria, Illinois. Botulism was passed to those unfortunate souls by the sauteed onions used on a restaurant's "patty melt" (a cheeseburger on rye with sauteed onions).
Barbara "crying shame" Mikkelson


Read more at www.snopes.com/food/tainted/cutonions.asp#FAVjEChWA4uWCrcC.99

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