Like many life forms, bacteria, fungus and evolution’s retarded son viri are happy to have a free meal in a warm place but if they can’t get it they hang out just about everyplace. Many people are surprised to find that a lot of these organisms that make us sick don’t come from the food or because somebody didn’t wash their hands, they are ubiquitous in our environment. That means they are in our air and water and hanging out on our skin and inside our houses. Yup, freaky but true. Normally they don’t get out of control and our immune system fights them off. Naturally, raw foods pose more of a threat that cooked foods because cooking destroys most of these germs so it’s not always a problem. When they do get out of control, they mass populate and that’s where the problems start for us humans.
Some nasty organisms like viri and fungi are bad for us all by themselves. There are forms of bacteria and fungi that excrete things that are poisonous (toxic) to us. Examples include botulinum toxin and some forms of black mold mycotoxin. Some less lethal forms of them will leave your food visibly behind but rob it of nutritional value and leave behind a really lousy flavor. This can be the case with mold. Moldy flour makes for some pretty unappealing bread.
Food, water, warmth. My don’t we have a lot in common.
So these nasty microscopics, as humans, like food, water and warmth in general. In terms of need they may differ only in their needs for shelter and emotional warmth and acceptance but it’s difficult to prove objectively. Perhaps science will one day provide us with the means to communicate with bacteria. We can tell our head cold that we feel like crap and it will reply “well that makes one of us!”. Thankfully this day has not yet come and we do not care for the emotional lives of nasty biologicals or their families, jobs, churches or communities. We are pretty prejudicial when it comes to their civil rights.
A focus on common killer food born microorganisms.
The most common foodborne micro-nasties are Campylobacter (bacteria), Salmonella (bacteria), botulus (bacteria) E. coli (virus) and by a gang of viruses called calicivirus, also known as the Norwalk viruses. Now since these and other micro-murderers are so well documented, there’s no point in re-phrasing it here now. In a rare example of government being helpful, a great review of these plagues are found here. These are of limited utility to our discussion to this point however. There are so many microbiotics that can feast on our various foods it’s impossible for me to list them. Besides, new ones seem to pop up now and then.
Molds, fungi, mushrooms and food storage.
In traditional terms, mushrooms and molds are “old”. They have mysterious powers. Mushrooms and molds can form overnight, almost faster than anything else that lives, but tradition teaches us that these things live underground. So we were not surprised when science told us that the mushroom us just an above-ground manifestation of something large, even ubiquitous in the soil, in the Earth. Moldy or mushroomy soil has a smell, and molds are pretty much welcome in our composts. They are the Fungus amongus. Let this balance get out of control and we are in trouble.
As we’ll state repeatedly, microorganisms are older life forms in competition with us for food. The fungi have had a winning strategy for a long time. Some of them populate on our food and some of them populate on us whom they consider food. But some of them can do us favors. For instance, we get penicillin from mold and it’s a very powerful bactericide which means it can kill bacteria. Which makes total sense if you are a mold, a microscopic mold, because your main competitor is nobody else but bacteria. So you want to repel them. And it’s this quality that makes mold our friend, particularly when we get to cheesing and curdling. So let’s get friendly with mold for a minute.
There are dozens of types we are concerned with out of thousands or even millions of varieties. They all have really complex sounding scientific names which do us no real good to repeat here. Molds seem to do fine in dark environments although many can tolerate sunlight. Controlling mold is a matter of keeping humidity and temperatures down low. And fortunately most of them are aerobic which means they breathe air. This means our modern packing methods which remove oxygen from sealed containers can stop them from multiplying. This is why we’ve moved away from storing grain in sacks and towards sealed containers for storage. Bleach will take out most forms of surface mold but the problem with molds and fungi is they can cover amazingly large pieces of ground. When a mushroom pops up overnight, you aren’t seeing a mushroom, you are seeing a small visible manifestation of something very large underground. By the time you see it, often it’s released spores and maybe other things.
Some molds emit “mycotoxins”. We’re not sure why, maybe it has to do with weakening competition or the host organism but some of them do. And i’m not sure whether the micotoxins are sporous or gaseous in nature but when it gets into you it can cause all kinds of illness. Illnesses associated with them are respiratory problems, liver damage, renal failure and cancer. Yes, they are that nasty. These mycotoxins are what kill people when they eat the wrong type of mushrooms.
When most food gets moldy we throw it out. However, for our curing hams hanging in the shade house, we let the exterior surface mold over, we cut the top layer off, cut as much ham as we want and let the fresh surface mold over again. Cheese and fruit are much the same: we cut off the effected surface and eat what’s below. Other people don’t do this these days but we did it for generations. Nobody ever got poisoned. The men in my family mainly succumb to gales and gunfire not the grub. However, beyond hard cheeses, cured meats and some fruits, mold + food = compost.
As we’ll discuss, root cellars make dandy fungal incubators and once overrun it can be impossible to get rid of. Quarantine, purification by fire and decomissioning the cellar loom as necessities.