This is part 3 of a 4-part feature series covering the food-borne illnesses responsible for most food recalls in the United States.
Botulism, a serious and potentially fatal illness caused by the bacteria group Clostridium botulinum, has caused widespread sickness and fatalities in many men, women and children. Although it is one of the less common food-borne illnesses (fewer than 200 cases in the U.S. per year), Clostridium botulinum is a dangerous nerve toxin that can cause infection through food contamination and other ways.
Effects of Botulism
Botulism is not your typical type of food poisoning. The toxin that is harmful to humans attacks the neuromuscular system, causing frightening episodes of paralysis. There are three distinct types of this illness: 1) foodborne botulism, which is contracted from contaminated foods, 2) wound botulism, where the bacteria enters the body through cuts or sores, and 3) infant botulism, which infiltrates infants’ digestive systems as spores are consumed or inhaled. The majority of cases reported are infant botulism cases, which can wreak havoc on a new baby’s developing body.
Where Clostridium Botulinum are Found
Clostridium botulinum thrive in low-oxygen environments and are commonly discovered in soil. They spread as airborne spores until they rest in locations that allow them to grow and become toxic. Reports of foodborne outbreaks are most often associated with foods that have been canned at home, especially those with low acid content such as green beans, asparagus, beets and corn. Cases involving chili peppers, tomatoes, carrot juice, homemade salsa and garlic-infused oils have also been reported.
Symptoms and Diagnosis
Individuals poisoned with foodborne botulism may experience any number of symptoms, including blurred or double vision, weakness, slurred speech, trouble swallowing, dry mouth and muscle weakness. When the bacterium begin to poison infants, parents may notice lethargy, lack of hunger, constipation, weak muscles and weak crying. In later stages, paralysis can occur. Botulism can take anywhere from a few hours to a few days to cause symptoms, so it is imperative to seek medical treatment at the first signs of illness. In cases of early discovery, an antitoxin may help patients counteract the effects of the bacteria.
Protecting Your Family Against Botulism
Clostridium botulinum cannot survive in extremely high heat. If you are canning at home, boil your canned food for at least 10 minutes before eating to destroy bacteria. Here are a few other tips for safeguarding against botulism infection.
- Do not feed honey or corn syrup to children under 1 year old.
- Sterilize open wounds and see a doctor for infection control.
- Use a pressure cooker to heat foods when canning anything that isn’t very acidic.
- Avoid consuming food from bulging cans, a sign that air and bacteria may be present.
- Follow safe canning procedures as advised by your local extension agent.
- Refrigerate herb-infused oils.
- Do not allow cooked foods to sit at room temperature.
Learn More About Botulism
Researching the risks and sharing tips on prevention are key to avoiding this devastating illness. If you or anyone you know practices canning at home, please read this safe canning guide from the National Center for Home Food Preservation. You can also check with your state health department for more information on reducing your risks, and visit these additional resource links:
Centers for Disease Control FAQ page on botulism
ABC News Health, Facts About Botulism article
Recent botulism outbreaks
Mayo Clinic botulism info page
U.S. Food Safety and Inspection Service Foodborne Illness & Disease page
Pressure Canning Chart
Water Bath Canning Chart
The Other Three Articles in this Series on Common Food Borne Illnesses:
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