Is the world around us corked?

by Jon Bonné,

Ever since Sunday’s column about the presence of TCA and TBA, or “cork taint,” in items other than wine, readers have been coming out of the woodwork (ah, cork-taint puns) with their own tales of taint in the wider world.

Many had similar experiences to me with apples. Indeed, over at the Weekly, Jonathan Kauffman considered that the pervasive taint in apples might have to do with storing apples into the off-season. Good point.

Bagged baby-cut carrots, which played a key role in my piece, are one of the most frequent culprits, based on my inbox. Also bananas.

apples: cork taint culprit

Cork taint isn't just found in corks, but in such common things as apples, carrots, and many chlorine-based products.

But it went far beyond that. Several other S.F. library patrons wrote in, noting the same experience with a TCA-like smell in the main branch — including a real-estate appraiser, who noted that the smell is far more pervasive in buildings than you’d expect. (Disclosure: I haven’t been to the library in a while, so not sure if the scent endures. Bad citizen!)

I got an e-mail forwarded from a French winery sanitation specialist with a Ph.D. in enology who complained of a local bakery “selling a TCA bread. Is it the flour, the paper bags of the flour, the bakery itself, the beams? I don’t know. But I never buy bread there.”

Then there was the chemist wrote in noting that “an organic farmer at our local farmers’ market was using damp burlap to keep his broccoli cool until I told him about the resulting smell. He told me that he had used the technique for years and that he routinely put the burlap in chlorine water after use.”

And then came this news:

"Johnson & Johnson said on Thursday it is recalling about 57,000 bottles of its Topamax epilepsy drug after reports of a foul odor, the latest in a string of recalls by the company.

The recall stems from four consumer reports of an odor thought to be caused by trace amounts of TBA (2,4,6 tribromoanisole), a byproduct of a chemical preservative applied to wood pallets that transport products, J&J said."

Drugs, apparently, can be corked too.

Is there a takeaway lesson? I think so.

Aside from the issue of wood preservatives (which wineries have long known about), the primary culprit in this seems to be chlorine-based products, which provide the chlorine that can turn into taint compounds. An easy solution, as I hinted in the column, is to use non-chlorine cleaning products — oxygen bleaches like Proxycarb (which some wineries already use) or OxyClean are good alternatives. Christian Butzke, the Purdue food scientist I cited in the column, noted that cork aside, the environmental presence of TCA-like taint in Europe seems to be lower because chlorine products are far less prevalent there.

As it turns out, when last I ran out of chlorine bleach my local store only carried oxygen bleach, so I bought that instead. Now I think I should make the switch permanent — and I’m left wondering what untold corkiness I’ve brought into my life up to now.

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