Microbiologists don’t need labs, apparently

All they need to do is visit student residences.

A student died after eating leftover pasta that had been left on his kitchen benchtop for five days.

The 20-year-old from the Brussels in Belgium became sick after eating leftover spaghetti with tomato sauce which had been prepared five days earlier and stored at room temperature.

Many thoughts are wheeling through my brain right now.

What kind of environment was this in that food left out for 5 days wasn’t covered in green fur?

Was it all furry with mold, and the student ate it anyway?

I don’t eat food that’s been refrigerated for more than a few days. How desperate was this person? What circumstances led someone to such a dire meal?

I don’t recommend this as an analysis tool, but how did it taste? Shouldn’t the first mouthful have been his first warning?

He became violently ill after eating it. Second warning. You’ve just done something incredibly dangerous.

I wonder how many student kitchens are greater health hazards than anything they might encounter in a microbiology lab. On second thought…I don’t want to know.

Students do not deserve death for poverty and carelessness. How about if we all recognize that what grows on our food and what we stuff in faces might be the greatest threat to our health and survival?


  1. says

    I don’t eat food that’s been refrigerated for more than a few days. How desperate was this person? What circumstances led someone to such a dire meal?

    1st generation helicopter kid. I swear a lot of them are going to get themselves killed or seriously hurt because their parents never allowed them to develop the skills needed to live an ordinary life.

  2. says

    I don’t eat food that’s been refrigerated for more than a few days.

    Really? Among people I know, it’s a common strategy to cook a lot all at once, and then eat the leftovers over the course of days or weeks. With refrigeration of course.

    Norms with regard to food preservation might differ more than you think. I’m mostly thinking of my mother who would regularly eat food past its nominal expiration date, and leave things sitting on the stove overnight. I think her practices were often excessive, but I also think Americans are propagandized by food companies to throw food out earlier than they need to.

  3. eliza422 says

    I’ve eaten leftovers – refrigerated – up to about 5 days. After that I’m leery.

  4. says

    I’m generally neither very tidy nor squeamish, but it depends on the food. Also, I tend to use the three step process of eyes-nose-mouth. If I bite into something that I deem off I’ll spit it out again.

  5. Aaron says

    First thought: Botulism, which grows at room temperature, is famously odorless and tasteless, as well as toxic.

    Second thought: Pretty much anything that grows at fridge temperature isn’t dangerous to humans (from what I understand–I’m not a pathologist or anything), so the worst you get from eating fuzzy fridge food is maybe a bad smell/taste or some indigestion. I commonly scrape stuff off leftovers and eat the non-moldy bits, and as far as I know, that’s pretty safe, and my metric for “inedible” is “smells too funny for me to ignore” rather than a time-based metric.

    So if a thrifty student is taking advantage of the second point, but not considering the first, then maybe that gets us to “poisoning oneself with food left out” without having to think that the student is some reprobate helicopter-parenting output?

  6. madtom1999 says

    Nine days old! The main dish of many people used to be a pottage that was re-heated and more bits added over a period of time to bulk it up again. Its probably worth noting that it would be a thick gloop that would not allow any circulation until heated beyond normal life killing temperatures.
    I once had a pan that had been used to scramble eggs in one Sunday morning after a good night out and someone not used to the kitchen layout put some soaking water in, put the lid back on and placed it back where pans were kept. A week later in an attempt to make more scrambled eggs the pan was moved – unable to be lifted as I was not expecting it to weigh more than a few ounces and some spillage occurred, The smell was sufficient to induce spontaneous vomiting on anyone who when near it and it was eventually removed by destroying a loudspeaker so the strong magnet could be introduced into the kitchen on a sturdy pole from outside, first removing the lid and then lowering the magnet till it stuck to the bottom of the pan and it could be lifted outside and the pan attacked with a pressure washer and the kitchen cleaned by commando attacks with people running in and cleaning as much as they could before running out to breathe.
    I have wondered about bottling stuff like that for right wing rallies.

  7. Aaron says

    I guess the article specifically says “Bacillus cereus”, I don’t know what its flavor/smell profile is, so maybe the point about botulism is moot except insofar as its characteristics translate to other pathogens that grow at room temp.

  8. anbheal says

    There’s something fishy about this story. I suspect there’s nary a college student alive who hasn’t woken up on a Sunday morning after a kegger and dug into the remaining slices of the pizza they ordered with their roommates at 2AM the night before. Which is not recommended — staph is most at home aroun 70 degrees, and can start setting in after about 2 hours. Which should make you think twice about those afternoon cookouts and clambakes, at 85 or 90 degrees, with the cheese and tuna casseroles sitting there from 1pm to 8pm. But we don’t. And we’re fine.

    But 5 days??? And it didn’t taste like dogshit at the first bite? Something else is afoot. And it’s Belgium, not Mississippi.

    The guy who was King’s big horror competitor in the 80s and 90s (Clive Barker, maybe?) had a book of short stories I read, and one of the more compelling and memorable was about a sadist who kidnapped and imprisoned a devoted vegan, and left her with a plate of meat. Which of course she refused to eat for a while. And the longer she waited, the moldier it got. And by day 3 or so, she was starving, but the maggots had started in with it. So the more she delayed the inevitable, the grosser the meal became. Making me think that if this kid was starving enough to eat the dogshit on Day 5, he must have been hungry 2 or 3 days earlier.

    I dunno, something bugs me about the narrative — either it was a dare, some weird form of torture, or he woke up from a 4-day drug thing. There’s a missing piece.

  9. says

    When I was in uni, I came back from a visit home to discover that none of my flatmates had washed any of the dishes they’d used in that time, and the sink was now piled high, with some particularly verdant growth on the lower levels.

    Ah, the fun of shared accommodation.

  10. microraptor says

    Aaron @7: Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria responsible for botulism, is an obligate anaerobe. It can’t grow in the presence of oxygen so it wouldn’t be found growing on something left on the counter. It’s more common in improperly prepared sausages or canned foods (in fact, at one point botulism was known as sausage poisoning).

    The story reminds me of an ex girlfriend, though. We were sharing an apartment at the time when I went to house-sit for my grandparents while they were on vacation.

    Found that she’d used every clean dish in the place without cleaning anything, and she’d bought a large pizza that she’d eaten one slice of then left on the counter until it had gotten moldy ad attracted ants.

    We broke up.

  11. VolcanoMan says

    I love that Youtube channel which featured this story. It’s like a real life Dr. House, except he’s not an asshole. Generally, most people would consider the actions of the people featured to be really foolish (drinking a liter of soy sauce in two hours, for example) but only in rare cases would a normal person see them as life-threatening (like where a farmer, noticing an odd skin lesion, decided not to see a doctor who might tell him he has cancer, instead removing it himself with a pocketknife…ignorance may be bliss, but in his case, it was also fatal). The presenter speaks clearly and explains the roots of the medical terminology he uses so you not only know what it means, but can translate that knowledge to other conditions (e.g. “-emia” as a suffix means “presence in blood”…so septicemia means bacteria in blood, while ketonemia means an excess of ketones in the blood). And all cases he talks about either actually happened, or were created from several similar cases synthesized into one ideal teaching case.

  12. Snidely W says

    @7 Aaron. I totally agree with the basic advice that if it still smells like the food it is supposed to be, it is still edible. Nuke it a bit maybe.

    @10 anbheal. I worked at a pizza joint for years and ate pizza in all of its leftover forms and the worst problem that I ever encountered was it getting overly dry and tough to chew. That’s what leftover pizza does, it drys out. Its tough for anything to grow on dry things. However, we never had any of those weird ingredients like seafoodstuffs. But even those should be fine. They were cooked to sterility presumably.

    Fun fact: Feel free to eat a big old bowl of botulism, as long as you cook it thoroughly. It kills the bacteria AND detoxifies the toxin that they produce! This probably applies to most microorganisms, but don’t go trying this on all your contaminated foodstuffs on my account. Also, I have no idea if any of these cooked toxic critters taste good. Hmm. Maybe I’ll do some research to find out which toxic bacteria taste good when cooked and come up with some novel dishes, and start a specialty restaurant. I’ll call it “Fugu’s”.

  13. mcfrank0 says

    Scanning the Wikipedia article it appear that B. Cereus is a bit like E. Coli. Some strains are beneficial, even necessary to our gut. Others can cause mild to severe disease.

    Sounds like this guy had that “emetic” version:
    “The ’emetic’ form is commonly caused by rice cooked for a time and temperature insufficient to kill any spores present, then improperly refrigerated. It can produce a toxin, cereulide, which is not inactivated by later reheating. This form leads to nausea and vomiting 1-5 hours after consumption.”

    Mr. Whiplash at 15 — looks like nuking will not save you from this one!

  14. says

    I’m with anbheal @10: once I confirmed that this was a real thing (B. Cereus – be serious?), my mind immediately jumped to dare/prank. Since when are college-aged humans above doing stupid and life-threatening things for a laugh?

  15. Arnaud says

    Okay, B. cereus can actually be pretty dangerous. It’s quite common in the soil. It usually stays dormant, in spore form, in rice and other cereals or cereal products. In that form it can survive a lot of things, including boiling. So cooking rice or pasta does not necessarily kill it, it just brings what it needs : water. As soon as the temp goes down the thing will get out of its dormant stage and start multiplying. And it does that pretty fast (can double in numbers every few minutes if the conditions are right!) Which is why the food and safety advice on these products is to cook them, eat them or refrigerate them ASAP.
    My training in health and safety is a bit old now but at the time I was told that rice and pasta were actually the reason behind most occurences of food poisonings.

  16. Holms says

    Week old food is fine with refrigeration. What I don’t understand how someone can be ~20 without knowing that food goes off without it.

  17. chrislawson says

    Snidely W@16–

    Maybe I’m misreading your comment, but you seem to have taken the opposite message of what Aaron intended.

    To clarify: we CANNOT tell if food is safe to eat from its smell or taste alone. There are plenty of safely fermented foods that taste “off” especially to those experiencing it for the first time, and there are many common causes of food poisoning that are not detectable to our palates — easily detected causes would not be common!


    Furthermore, “nuking” food by microwave is not guaranteed to kill microorganisms or denature enterotoxins.

  18. unclefrogy says

    when in doubt through it out was what i was taught as an army cook still do it. I do eat some leftovers but very few and of those except for some cold leftover BBQ I always heat it up in the oven or a double boiler for plenty of time.
    never a week old crap on the counter. I learned my lesson as a kid eating marginal leftover chicken.
    uncle frogy

  19. Callinectes says

    I remember putting some cooked chicken legs in the microwave at my student house’s Christmas party, and then forgetting about them. After the holidays they were discovered. I’ve never seen mould on meat before. Frankly, it looked like nothing so much as a tropical starfish. What was most curious was how the cooked meat superficially appeared to have reverted to a raw state.

    I have lost all memory of the smell, along with other brain cells that were exposed to it.

  20. jrkrideau says

    I tend to assume that here in Canada “best before” means exactly that. I don’t throw out something that is a few days over the date. If I have something–usually a drug of some kind–that says the equivalent of “Expires by X date” then it goes on or before that date.

    @ 23 chigau (違う)
    I store my eggs in the fridge.</>
    Good idea if you live in Canada (or the USA). According to Joe Schwarcz of McGill’s Office for Science and Society we in North America are not as fussy as the Europeans about keeping eggs (and presumably the hens) clean so we wash the eggs which removes some fine “membrane”? that helps seal the egg while they do this not in at least Western Europe. With the protective film gone the changes of an egg becoming contaminated with salmonella increases.

  21. jrkrideau says

    A friend of mine has had a MacDonald’s hamburger sitting on the windowsill of his home office for about 9–10 years. No mold but he says it is getting a bit dried out. I do not think he has any plans to eat it.

  22. The Evil Twin says

    Worst case of ‘old food’ that I’ve encountered involved Norwescon (A Seattle-area SF con that I know PZ has been to at least once, as I’ve passed him in the hall). It is a once-a-year event, most of the food-prep gear is consumer-grade kitchen stuff that spends 360 days a year in storage and 5 days out for the con. This includes the microwave ovens. Someone put one away with a (presumably warm) meat casserole inside (it was put away inside it’s original box, so it wasn’t obvious that there was anything in it). Opening it the next year was…interesting.

    Someone did take it home and pressure-washed it, and the thing actually worked afterwards, but we threw it away on general principles. And we have since implemented a checklist to be sure everything is cleaned at the end of the con.

  23. robro says

    jrkrideau @ #27 — Somehow that doesn’t surprise me. I don’t think there’s any food in the Scottish hamberders.

  24. Artor says

    At my summer fair booth, we cook big platters of home-fried potatoes to serve for breakfast. One time, there was a tray of potatoes left in the oven when we packed up and put everything in storage for a year. Fortunately, the life cycle had run it’s course completely, and firing the stove up to temp burned out any lingering odors and fly casings.

  25. Hairhead, Still Learning at 59 says

    Hah! I grew up in a traditional home where Mum shopped, cooked all the food, did all the laundry, made all the beds, scrubbed the kitchen, and so on. My brothers and did nothing but the occasional load of dishes. One spring when I was in University, my parents took off for a week, leaving me, 21, and my younger brothers, 19, and 16, home alone.

    My mother left a nice, freshly-cooked pork roast on the kitchen table for us, under a cover.

    At that point I took care of myself: made my own breakfast, made a lunch to take to Uni, and usually at ate the Uni, studying, or having fun.

    But my 19 year old brother had graduated high school and had a job. Because I ate cold cereal at home and cooked nothing. I took no notice of my brothers. Until the fourth day.

    I walked through the kitchen, noting the cover was still on the pork roast. I stepped through into the dining room as my brother entered the kitchen behind me. I head the cover being removed. About 3 seconds later I heard two things: CLANG! the cover hitting the floor and AAAAUUUGHH! from my brother. I re-entered the kitchen and saw my brother through the kitchen window, on the porch, bent over the railing, vomiting.

    I turned and looked at naked pork, sitting on its plate; except it wasn’t naked. It had pale, gently moving coat of maggots. Which my brother, grabbing at the roast with his bare hand (he was not a sophisticated eater) had shoved into his mouth, judging from the spray of slightly-chewed maggoty pork on the wall above the table.

    I threw out the pork, and cleaned the plate, the wall, and the kitchen before my parents came back. I did not mention this to my brother or my parents, but lesson remained.

  26. Snidely W says

    @18 mcfrank0, Thanks. Bacillus cereus is off the potential menu list at Fugu’s.

    @22 chrislawson, on rereading Aaron’s comment I don’t know that I took it as the opposite of what he was saying, but I did probably read something extra into it. But I do stand by – and live by – my advice that if it still smells like it did when originally served then it’s good to go. Usually nuked as well.

    And I hoped that I didn’t leave the impression in my last paragraph that I thought that all microorgs and their toxins could be neutralized with nuking. That was not my intent. But your message ““nuking” food by microwave is not guaranteed to kill microorganisms or denature enterotoxins” is well worth repeating.

  27. Kagehi says

    @ 15 pavelov

    You beat me too it. Second I saw the basic details I went, “Wait.. I just saw a video about that, which described what took place from the medical standpoint.”

  28. Kagehi says

    @ 2 siggy “but I also think Americans are propagandized by food companies to throw food out earlier than they need to.”

    Yep. The “expiration” date on “most” foods is about, “When does the company consider the taste to be optimally fresh.”, and they can set any date from point of manufacture they bloody want for it. That being said, its not every food that falls into this category, and it would be close to impossible, even for the perishable ones, to set an exact date that is accurate for every single batch of something. Mostly.. if its not wet, or dairy, or otherwise “prone to” going bad, its just likely to end up stale, not necessarily inedible.

  29. says

    I regularly go to the web and consult the experts (best to consult more than one and compare their advice) on how long food lasts: canned food, frozen food, refrigerated food, food in boxes and bags. Our daughter has picked up and even magnified our concerns about bad food and asks me periodically to check or verify the status of this or that.

    Yeah, those dates are way conservative, and invariably favor the proposition that the consumer should always go buy more instead of (what they would call) taking a chance on it.

  30. says

    A tale: There was a guy I knew in University whose fondness for drink was considered excessive, even by the local norms (undergraduate Irish engineers). I once bet him I could go longer without a cigarette than he could without a pint– and I won. Once, we returned to college at the start of a new term and rather than bothering with such niceties as lectures and tutorials, he went straight on the piss, first to the campus bar and when that closed, to a nightclub in the City Centre. After that, he returned to his digs in the early hours and by now ravenously hungry, dug around drunkenly in his fridge until he found an opened package of cooked ham, apparently the only food in the place. Cursing his short-sightedness at not hitting a chip-shop on his way home, he made his way towards the bedroom, stuffing sliced pig in his gob as he went, when some alarming sensory information finally started to percolate through his soused synapses; viz., that ham is not normally crunchy. Looking down at last, he discovered that the ham, which had been sitting in his fridge over the break while he was in the country with his parents, was completely green with mould 🤢. Cue a rapid trip to the toilet and rapid ejection of the mouldy ham along with a day’s worth of pints. He was none the worse for wear the next day and seemed only annoyed that he had vomited the pints before metabolising his money’s worth of alcohol from them… presumably, it was the alcohol that killed any pathogens! 😃

  31. says

    It is ok to eat food refrigerated for even months or years (allegedly even mammoths found in permafrost were still safe to eat after all). We freeze veggies, shrooms, raw meat and even pre-cooked foods regularly and eat them months, sometimes even years later. Freezing the food is not a problem. Problem is re-freezing it after it partialy or completely thawed – that is a no-no, as well as thawing the food at room temperature, because each thawing cycle lets bacteria to multiply and the subsequent frost does not kill them.

  32. K E Decilon says

    Modern food preservation is a miracle of science, I tell ya.

    We have a set of metal shelves in our basement that serves as a pantry for non-perishable canned and dry food. We buy canned goods on sale, and try to not buy more till we use the next to the last can.

    It works pretty well, but changing food tastes sometimes causes things to get shoved to the back. I lost some weight last summer for health reasons, and changed a lot of my diet habits. Eating a lot of vegetables, staying away from red meat and sweets, and I no longer snack between meals.

    So day before yesterday, while putting away canned goods, I thought I would use up the 2 quart plastic bottle of V-8 Juice that had been there for some time. Longer than I would have guessed without proof, it turns out. The date on the cap says Jul 19 2012. Does’t say “Best if used buy”, just the date.

    Like some others here, I am not that particular about those dates, as long as the food has not been opened. The bottle of mostly tomato juice is now in the fridge, probably about one 12 ounce glass left. I have not had any problems. The wife is a bit more skeptical, she will not partake of it. It does taste just a tiny bit odd, but is it age, or did I quit using it in 2012 because I was not that fond of the taste? I doubt I have tasted any since 2012, apparently.

    After reading this thread, I went downstairs and checked for more artifacts. I remember a couple years ago, my wife had a recipe that called for condensed milk. There was a can on that shelf, but it was so old there was no date of any kind. We threw that one out. Just now, I found a can of Beef Stew with a lot of seniority. It is new enough to have a nutrition panel on the label, but there is only a code stamped on the bottom. It gives the time of day, and “BST 3 199M”. It proudly proclaims “No Preservatives” on the label. Could it be from the Clinton administration?

    My wife has to be out of town for a few days in a couple weeks, I think I will check it out then. If it smells OK, I will nuke the hell out of it, and get a couple lunches from it.

    I am old enough to have eaten a quite a few foods that were canned in the kitchen using the high technology of Mason jars and boiling water, and consumed up to a couple years later. I am with those that think dates on canned goods are mostly to convince you to throw it out and buy it again.

  33. John Morales says

    K E Decilon:

    If it smells OK, I will nuke the hell out of it, and get a couple lunches from it.

    I am old enough to have eaten a quite a few foods that were canned in the kitchen using the high technology of Mason jars and boiling water, and consumed up to a couple years later.

    Me too, but then I’m neither that poor nor that cheap that I will eat foodstuffs that are years out of date.

    Note that storage and handling conditions matter muchly; that bulging can? Ditch it.
    That milk that sat in the warm car for three hours? Forget the stamped expiration date on it.
    And, that funny-tasting old mostly tomato juice? Your wife is wiser than you in avoiding it.

  34. says

    @13 microraptor

    in fact, at one point botulism was known as sausage poisoning

    … whereas now, that refers to pregnancy.

    (I’m sorry I’m sorry, I’ll show myself out…)