Botulism is a rare, but serious illness caused by a germ called Clostridium botulinum. The germ survives in soil and is present in food-borne bacteria or as a toxin in a sealed jar of food. The toxin blocks nerve messages, which, in turn, causes people to lose control of their muscles. Its effects can paralyze or even kill you. With just over 200 cases of botulism reported to the CDC in two decades (although additional data speculates about 150 cases per year, mostly in infants), it's not surprising that the risks don't usually register with consumers. But two recent separate outbreaks have focused attention on this potentially fatal illness.
In California, one man has died and nine others were sickened following tainted nacho cheese from a gas station. The likely cause? According to officials, the cheese was sealed in a bag that had been growing the bacteria due to improper heating and storage. Another death from botulism occurred earlier this month, where a jar of canned vegetables was likely the culprit. In order for the neurotoxin to grow, C. botulinum needs to be exposed to an oxygen-free environment, emerging from a spore form and becoming a cell.
This is why canned vegetables are a breeding ground for the bacteria.
Home Canning And Botulism
With summer gardening well on its way across the country, it's important to understand the basics of how to properly can vegetables at home. If done improperly, vegetables can get contaminated with C. botulinum. The National Center for Home Food Preservation has a well-informed, step-by-step guide on proper home canning techniques to prevent food-borne illness.
Because home canned foods can look, smell and taste normal even when contaminated, it can be difficult to spot irregularities. Contaminated food jars are easier to spot if the container is leaking, bulging, cracked, or swollen. If there is any doubt whether or not safe canning guidelines were followed, it's best to throw the food away.
For more infortmation on botulism, visit the Food Safety website.