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I'm currently fermenting some hot sauce, and I'm just starting looking into fermenting other things, such as sauerkraut, dill pickles etc.

I've read up on Botulism, yeasts, and moulds but I've just stumbled upon a website that mentioned E. Coli contamination in fermented hot sauce. Supposedly from the vegetable / chilli matter itself.... Which goes against everything else I've read, from more authoritative sources, so far. But I thought I should do my due diligence and do some research into whether other food borne illness causing bugs, are something I need to be aware of when lacto fermenting?

Assuming I follow my usual sanitation procedure as described below, and I use fresh, health ingredients, is there a note worth risk of food poisoning once something is properly fermented?

  1. Wash everything with hot, soapy water (including all utensils and work areas).
  2. Soak everything in a .2% bleach solution, for at least 20 minutes.
  3. Rinse everything with running water, then shake off excess water.
  4. Spray everything with ChemSan, and leave for two or more minutes.
  5. Pour off any excess ChemSan residue and use straight away.

In the event that I don't use the sterilized equipment within a few minutes of step 5, I will repeat steps 4 and 5.

When it comes time to make the ferment, I always use the correct amount of salt, measured out in grams. I also make sure everything is under the water level of the brine, that there's no air pockets etc. And I use airlocks. I also keep my hands clean enough for surgery, and I wear disposable, food grade gloves.

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Short answer is it really depends on your method. You shouldn't wash the vegetables in sanitizers or in soapy water as these increase the risk that you have residues of these that you'll end up eating. In addition, the washing might remove many of the bacteria/yeasts that you want in your ferment and the residues of the sanitizer might inhibit the growth of the "good" bacteria that are present in your ferment, such that you get overgrowth of "bad" bacteria. The sanitizers are designed for use where you are inoculating the ferment with the organisms you want in your ferment, such as adding yeasts in making beer.

Hot sauce fermented to the proper pH of less than 4.6 are generally considered safe, and the good news is that both the salt in the recipe and the lactic acid produced by the bacteria are inhibitory for the growth of pathogenic bacteria. Escherichia coli (the E. coli you mentioned) is a facultative anaerobe, meaning it can grow in the absence of oxygen, however its growth is slowed by salt content and inhibited by lactic acid over certain levels, independently of the pH of the ferment.

In addition, fermentation processes are designed to discourage the growth of ones that might be harmful and encourage the growth of "good" bacteria and yeasts so that they use up the available resources (nutrients etc) in the ferment and don't let the bad ones take over. So, if you are following a known successful recipe, then the chances are that you are making a safe fermentation. Remember that people have been doing these processes for several thousand years as ways of naturally preserving foods.

Having said that, there are no guarantees on anything, there is only risk. E. coli is a very common bacterium in our environments and on our bodies. Most of the time it is non-pathogenic and actually an essential part of our microflora, but certain variants have the ability to be pathogenic, typically causing food poisoning. The chances are that any E. coli contaminant you come across are non-pathogenic, won't grow well in the salt and pH of the ferment, but there is a small risk that they are not.

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  • Thanks for the great reply. It's gonna take me a while to understand some of the links but they're very much welcome food for thought. To be clear, I wash the dirt off the fresh and healthy vegetables with just cold water. I save the dish soap, bleach solution, and then the ChemSan for the equipment and bottles. I've now bottled the hot sauces (with pH's ranging from the highs of 3.22, to 3.52), and I'm looking forward to my next batch! Jan 31 at 0:13
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There are numerous pathogens of concern, including E. Coli, to consider when preparing or consuming fermented vegetables. The risk is usually highest when poor quality ingredients are used, improper hygiene is employed, or improper food safety systems (in this case, proper salt and acid levels) are used. Given the description of your process, I would venture to say that you are mitigating as much risk as possible. As long as you follow through and also monitor for molds (which are not always a problem). You are likely doing everything you possibly can to ensure food safety. If you are interested in further reading, The Noma Guide to Fermentation and Sandor Katz's The Art of Fermentation are two excellent resources.

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