A man aged 55-65 passed away in Grays Harbor County, Washington, during the weekend from a probable case of botulism. Public health officials are waiting for test results to confirm the cause of death.
Grays Harbor County Environmental Health assisted the property owner, the deceased man’s spouse, with the safe disposal of about 170 pint-sized jars of home-canned food and canning jars following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Botulism is odorless and can’t be seen or tasted; however, even a small taste of food containing the toxin can be deadly, according to the CDC.
The CDC stresses that home canning, while a fun and productive way to preserve everything from seafood to vegetables, can put people at risk of botulism if isn’t done correctly.
The CDC offers these guidelines for home canning:
1. Use proper canning techniques.
The best way to prevent foodborne botulism is by carefully following instructions for safe home canning from the “USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning.” Use only recipes and cookbooks that follow the steps in the USDA guide. Don’t use other recipes, even if you received them from a friend or family member.
You can learn more about proper home canning from these resources:
2. Use the right equipment for the kind of food you’re canning.
Low-acid foods are the most common sources of botulism linked to home canning. These foods have a pH level greater than 4.6. Low-acid foods include most vegetables such as asparagus, green beans, beets, corn, tomatoes, and potatoes plus some fruits, milk, all meats, fish, and other seafood.
Pressure canning is the only recommended method for canning low-acid foods.
- Don’t use a boiling water canner for low-acid foods because it won’t protect against botulism.
- Don’t use an electric, multi-cooker appliance, even if it has a “canning” or “steam canning” button on the front panel.
When pressure canning, remember:
- Use a recommended pressure canner that holds at least four one-quart jars sitting upright on the rack.
- Be sure the gauge of the pressure canner is accurate. Many county extension offices will check gauges. Contact the pressure canner manufacturer for other options.
- Clean lid gaskets and other parts according to the manufacturer’s directions.
- Vent the pressure canner before pressurizing and follow recommended cooling steps.
- Use up-to-date processing times and pressures for the kind of food, the size of jar, and the method of packing food in the jar. Pay special attention to processing times for low-acid foods.
3. When in doubt, throw it out.
If you have any doubt whether safe canning guidelines have been followed, don’t eat the food.
Home-canned and store-bought food might be contaminated with toxin or other harmful germs if:
- The container is leaking, bulging, or swollen.
- The container looks damaged, cracked, or abnormal.
- The container spurts liquid or foam when opened.
- The food is discolored, moldy, or smells bad.
The CDC offers the following information on botulism:
Botulism is a rare but serious illness caused by a toxin that attacks the body’s nerves and causes difficulty breathing, muscle paralysis, and even death.
This toxin is made by Clostridium botulinum and sometimes Clostridium butyricum and Clostridium baratii bacteria. These bacteria can produce the toxin in food, wounds, and the intestines of infants.
The bacteria that make botulinum toxin are found naturally in many places, but it’s rare for them to make people sick. These bacteria make spores, which act like protective coatings. Spores help the bacteria survive in the environment, even in extreme conditions.
The spores usually don’t cause people to become sick, even when they’re eaten. But under some conditions, the spores can grow and make one of the most lethal toxins known. The conditions in which the spores can grow and make toxin are:
- Low-oxygen or no oxygen (anaerobic) environment.
- Low acid.
- Low sugar.
- Low salt.
- A certain temperature range.
- A certain amount of water.
For example, improperly home-canned, preserved, or fermented foods can provide the right conditions for spores to grow and make botulinum toxin. When people eat these foods, they can become seriously ill, or even die, if they don’t get proper medical treatment quickly.
Signs and symptoms may include:
- Difficulty swallowing.
- Muscle weakness.
- Double vision.
- Drooping eyelids.
- Blurry vision.
- Slurred speech.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Difficulty moving the eyes.
Possible signs and symptoms in foodborne botulism could also include:
- Stomach pain.
Signs and symptoms in an infant may include:
- Poor feeding.
- Drooping eyelids.
- Pupils that are slow to react to light.
- Face showing less expression than usual.
- Weak cry that sounds different than usual.
- Difficulty breathing.
People with botulism may not have all of these symptoms at the same time.
The symptoms all result from muscle paralysis caused by the toxin. If untreated, the disease may progress and symptoms may worsen to cause full paralysis of some muscles, including those used in breathing and those in the arms, legs, and trunk or torso.
In foodborne botulism, symptoms usually begin 18 to 36 hours after eating a contaminated food.
If you or someone you know has symptoms of botulism, immediately see your doctor or go to the emergency room.