OK, It's Rotted--Is It Safe?

Before tasting the rotted barley, The Times sent a sample to Michelson Laboratories in Commerce to find out what was in it. Lots of things, it appeared: 9.3 million living bacteria per gram.

However, there was no problem with the usual food contaminants E. coli, staphylococcus, salmonella and listeria. The first two were present in minuscule quantities and the others totally absent.

We also had the sample tested for aflatoxins, the powerful carcinogens produced by the common mold Aspergillus flavus, because it seemed likely that A. flavus (among other molds of the genus aspergillus) had been our guests during this experiment. Michelson did find 3.47 parts per billion of aflatoxins, but this is not a serious level. The FDA permits nuts (A. flavus' favorite home) to be sold with contamination levels as high as 20 ppb.

And anyway, with any toxin, the dose makes the poison. It would seem a tablespoon and a half of murri per serving poses no health risk.

At least with this batch. "It's hard to extrapolate from this unit sample to what might happen with other batches," commented Don Olbrantz of Michelson. "Aflatoxins can be up or down, depending on variables. Were the conditions right? Was the mold present at all? When did it come in? If it's present only toward the end of the cycle, other molds will have produced toxins that will inhibit it."

In other words, while this batch was harmless, others might be naughtier. So from now on, when we see a recipe calling for murri, we're going to use soy sauce (which never contains aflatoxins). Not that that's just a whole lot easier than rotting your own barley for three months, mind you.

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