Botulism, Let the Consumer Beware


Botulism, a rare and potentially dangerous illness, is caused by a nerve toxin, produced by a group of bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. This bacteria is most commonly found in the soil and dust, and it survives very well in low oxygen conditions. The spores of the bacteria can remain in a dormant state and will grow when conditions improve. It is important to note that bacteria can be found in so many places, which includes countertops after they have been cleaned, carpets, and floors.

Five types of botulism that impact the public are as follows: wound botulism, appearing when a cut or sore has the bacteria; foodborne, occurring from eating foods with the botulinum toxin; infant botulinum and adult intestinal toxemia, which happens when the bacterial spores are consumed; and iatrogenic, which is a form that is caused from an overdose of the toxin. It was reported by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that approximately 145 cases are documented each year.

Foodborne botulism, which accounts for 15 percent, is considered a public health emergency due to a possible outbreak of food poisoning.  However, it occurs most often from home-canned foods. Infant botulism is reported at a rate of 65 percent. Babies, for example, who are less than one years old, are not given honey because this toxic bacteria may be present and they do not have antibodies to fight this condition.  The wound botulism is at 20 percent and relates to cases caused by black-tar heroin injections.

Symptoms  for most botulism conditions may take six hours to ten days to appear. However, foodborne can strike within 18 to 36 hours of eating food that is contaminated. Those symptoms that adults experience include slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, blurred vision, droopy eyelids, double vision, muscle weakness, and dry mouth. Young children experience constipation, lack of appetite, poor muscle tone, weak crying, and appear to be lethargic. As a cautionary measure, treatment could prevent the onset of any paralysis of the respiratory muscles, legs. arms, and trunk.

Botulism is not contagious and can be prevented, especially the foodborne type. Consumers must be aware of their canned foods that have a low-acid content such as corn, green beans, asparagus, and beets. The cause may be attributed to methods used in the  canning process. The bacterial culprit was found in canned cheese sauce, garlic in oil, chili peppers, carrot juice. and foil-wrapped baked potatoes, which could be traced back to improper handling by the consumer, or during retail or the product manufacturing. Fish and other contaminated game were the cause of botulism cases in Alaska.

Consumers awareness involves some preventative steps. It is recommended by the CDC that those who choose to do home canning follow the specific instructions that include the hygienic procedures to reduce contamination of foods. If eating home canned foods, cook the food products for at least to minutes so that if there is any botulism bacteria, it will not survive the high temperature. If a can is puffy or indented, it should be discarded.

Herbs or garlic infused in oil should be refrigerated, and baked potatoes from aluminum foil or other foods intended to be kept warm for an extended period of time, should, also, be refrigerated if not served in a timely manner. Botulism in wounds could be prevented if medical attention is immediate rather than to rely on a street-drug cure.

Potlucks and picnics are, also, suspects for botulism. After a church potluck that killed one woman and left 23 others very ill, there is an investigation that involves examining canned goods, pastas and potato salads. Although the low number of cases give doctors hope that forms of botulism has been eliminated from the United States, consumers must be alert to any warning signs.


Written by Marie A. Wakefield


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

ABC News

Fox News

Photo by Jonathan Hartford – Creativecommons Flickr License

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