Flushing diners unnerved by report of botulism in tofu

Unpackaged tofu sold out of containers full of room-temperature water may be the culprit in two recent cases of botulism in the borough. Photo courtesy city Department of Health
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Officials said tofu sold at an unidentified Flushing store is the likely culprit for at least one case of botulism, but a restaurateur said the news has not caused diners to turn up their noses at the soy-based product.

The city Department of Health said Queens was home to both one confirmed and one suspected case of botulism, a rare food-borne illness that is potentially fatal.

In both cases, the Queens residents consumed blocks of tofu purchased from a container filled with room-temperature water, a typical sight in neighborhood grocery stores.

But Jessica Lu, who runs a Taiwanese restaurant on the corner of 39th Avenue and Prince Street that serves up a special type of the food, said the scare has not turned customers off.

“It’s not a problem with tofu,” she said. “It’s a refrigeration problem.”

Lu keeps her tofu in the fridge, but said some markets in Flushing do not pay enough attention to keeping the product cool and preventing bacteria buildup.

And she has reason to be careful.

Her restaurant, 66 Lu’s Seafood, has been slinging a pungent dish called stinky tofu for decades without incident. Stinky tofu consists of fermented cubes of the soy product that are deep-fried and served with pickled cabbage.

“It’s a Taiwanese food. The people love it,” Lu said, although the malodorous snack draws mixed reactions even from island residents. “Everyone has been eating [stinky tofu] for 20 years and nothing has happened.”

Health officials are currently working to trace the source of the illness, and would not release the name of the store where the allegedly tainted tofu came from.

The department issued an edict to avoid tofu sold in bulk and to throw away any already purchased. This stems from the disease’s resilience.

Cooking any infected food items will not necessarily kill the bacteria, which can impair the nervous systems in humans when ingested and could eventually lead to death.

Flushing residents took heed and were avoiding tofu sold in the water-filled containers, according to Peter Tu, head of the Flushing Chinese Business Association. The issue was a shock due to tofu’s prominence in the diets of Asian countries and its prominence as a salubrious snack.

“Tofu is a very popular food,” Tu said. “It is usually a healthy food for the Asian people. They would never think that it could hurt them.”

But days after the department’s warning, floating blocks of tofu could be found in grocery stores throughout the neighborhood.

Reach reporter Joe Anuta by e-mail at or by phone at 718-260-4566.

Updated 5:05 pm, April 4, 2012
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