July 23, 2024

Botulism Case in North Carolina: Be Careful with Home Canning

Home canning is becoming more popular, since more people are planting gardens, supporting locally grown produce, and the “clean food” movement gathers steam. But canning low-acid foods, such as potatoes, carrots, and meat, can be tricky. One mistake and one bite of an improperly canned food, and you could die.

tomatoes-in-field-arsA woman in North Carolina contracted botulism earlier this year, according to a presentation at the Governor’s Task Force on Food Safety and Defense at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center in Research Triangle Park. The North Carolina Health News broke the story.

Botulism spores are produced by the Clostridium botulism bacteria. They can survive just about anything. They live in dirt, and can be on any plant harvested from any container, garden, or farm. The spores grow in anaerobic environments, so canned foods are the perfect growing medium for them. The spores produce botulism toxin. One tiny little bit of this toxin, less than the size of a grain of sand, can cause paralysis and death.

The woman didn’t even eat one of the carrot she had canned; she tasted one and spit it out. Botulism toxin is tasteless, odorless, and doesn’t change the color or texture of food, so she’s lucky she did that. Five days later she was on a ventilator in the hospital. It took the doctors some time to figure out what was wrong with her, since the symptoms of botulism can mimic a stroke.

If you are going to can low-acid foods, you must use a pressure canner. Stovetop processing is just not going to cut it. There are only about 145 cases of botulism poisoning every year in this country, but each one is serious and potentially deadly. Fifteen percent of these cases are linked to home canned foods.

The botulism outbreak at the Cross Pointe Free Will Baptist Church in Ohio is a case in point. One person died, at least 20 others are ill, and more are being monitored by doctors. That outbreak was linked to home-canned potatoes made into a potato salad.

If you are going to can foods at home, you must scrupulously follow every single instruction and rule for safe canning. Contact your state’s University Extension Office and talk to an expert there. Never can low-acid foods without a pressure canner. And use a thermometer to make sure that the water for water-processing methods is hot enough.

The symptoms of botulism poisoning include drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty breathing, and progressive paralysis. If you eat home-canned foods and experience these symptoms, see help from an emergency room immediately. The sooner you can be treated, the better the outcome.

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