We know that many seasonal specialties are just easier to buy than make; you want to make sure your family gets to enjoy all the traditional treats, but you don’t have the time to craft them in the kitchen yourself. If you only have time to DIY one this year, make it caramel apples.
The fatal listeria outbreak of 2014 that infected 35 people and left seven people dead was traced back to store-bought versions of these sticky sweets, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Researchers have worked to understand how the outbreak happened since both components of the treat don’t typically attract or grow listeria. Apples are generally too acidic for the bacteria, and caramel doesn’t have enough water content. “That’s why it’s shelf-stable,” says Kathleen Glass, the associate director of the University of Wisconsin’s Food Research Institute.
But tasked with finding out how the sweets could have sparked the outbreak, Glass and her team found that it’s the stick that causes the issue. Puncturing the apples with sticks causes some juice to move to the top of the apple, where it’s then covered with caramel according to their recently published article in mBio. It’s this moisture that allows the bacteria to grow.
The team found that storing the apples in the refrigerator delayed bacterial growth by up to a week, but listeria was able to spread after that point. Her best recommendation is to look for caramel apples that have been stored in a fridge or to eat them fresh. Make the treats at home in small batches with thoroughly cleaned apples to minimize leftovers and listeria exposure.
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