As we prepare for possible disasters, there is a steep learning curve with mountains of information to assimilate. We try our very best to get the job done with the knowledge we have acquired, usually making a few mistakes along the way. Some mistakes are simple and easy to correct, others might be deadly. It is as important to store food safely, as it is to store food.
One significant consideration is the nasty bacteria botulism and its deadly toxins. This post will focus on food-borne botulism which may be found in your home food stores unless you are careful.
What is Botulism
Botulism is a rare, deadly poisoning which is caused from toxins produced by bacteria known as Clostridium botulinum. It is found in soil and water throughout the world. High-moisture, low-salt, low-acid environments without oxygen or refrigeration are conditions which favor its growth. Clostridium botulinum produces spores which produce a toxin that may be found in improperly canned or preserved food. Botulism may potentially cause death and is considered a medical emergency. There are three common types of botulism:
• Infant botulism usually occurs between 2 and 6 months when bacterial spores grow inside the baby’s intestinal tract. Bacteria may be introduced by eating honey but more likely from exposure to contaminated soil.
• Food-borne botulism thrives in low-oxygen environments and produces dangerous toxins. When food containing the toxin is eaten it disrupts nerve function resulting in paralysis. The source of this form is often home-canned foods which are low in acid such as beets, corn or green beans. It has also occurred from a variety of sources including; fermented seafood, smoked or raw fish, cured pork and ham, sausage, honey, corn syrup, chili peppers, olives, soups, spinach, asparagus, potatoes, and oil infused with garlic.
• Wound botulism can enter the site of a wound so small you might not notice you have it, such as a scratch. The bacteria can multiply resulting in a dangerous infection as it produces the toxin.
Symptoms and Treatment
Symptoms of food-borne botulism usually begin within 8-36 hours of exposure. Diagnosis may be challenging as botulism poisoning may resemble a variety of other illnesses at the onset. Early medical intervention increases the chance of survival. No fever is present with botulism poisoning. Symptoms may include difficulty speaking or swallowing, blurred or double vision, facial weakness on both sides of face, drooping eyelids, dry mouth, trouble breathing, nausea, vomiting, abdominal cramps and paralysis.
The most immediate danger is the inability to breathe. Clinical diagnosis is the usual form of diagnosis. Lab tests can confirm the diagnosis but they may take a few days to get the results. Immediate treatment is essential to save life. Some doctors may try to clear the digestive system by inducing vomiting and bowel movements. An antitoxin is available which is injected into the patient. It can attach itself to the toxins preventing further damage. It will not repair nerve damage which has already occurred. Patients may need to be on a ventilator for several weeks as the effects of the toxins gradually diminish.
The saying, “An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure” is quite applicable here. The serious consequences of exposure to botulism make prevention critical. It might just be a sure death sentence to be exposed to this toxin when good medical care is scarce. The following is a list of suggestions to keep your food supply free from botulism toxins:
• Clean foods well before cooking or processing.
• Use proper techniques when canning foods at home to ensure all bacteria is destroyed. Sterilize home-canned foods by pressure cooking at 250 degrees for 30 minutes. Follow up-to-date local extension agency guidelines making sure to adjust cooking times for high altitude areas.
• Never eat preserved foods if the container is bulging, leaking, moldy or if the food smells bad.
• Consider boiling all home-canned vegetables and meats, without tasting, for 10 minutes. Boil spinach and corn for at least 20 minutes before consuming. Add one minute of boiling time for each 1000 feet above sea level. If it looks spoiled, smells funny, or foams during heating don’t risk it. Throw it away.
• Store oils infused with herbs or garlic in the refrigerator.
• Long term storage items such as wheat, white rice, rolled oats, dry beans, etc. should have a moisture content of 10 percent or less. Storing moist items in a low-oxygen environment encourages microbial growth and may result in botulism poisoning.
• Granola, nuts, brown sugar, and dehydrated fruits and vegetables (unless they are dry enough to snap inside and out) should not be stored in reduced oxygen packaging (such as #10 cans or pouches with an oxygen absorber).
• Vacuum packaging will not prevent botulism in moist products. It is appropriate to use a vacuum sealer to prolong shelf-life of dry items (<10 percent moisture such as wheat, popcorn, dry beans, etc.) intended to be stored at room temperature or moist items kept in refrigerator or freezer only.
Botulism is rare in our society due to strict commercial food processing guidelines along with a good supply of clean water. Rare does not mean it can’t happen to you or your loved ones. Take some time to evaluate your longer term storage items. Have you stored any moist items improperly in a reduced oxygen environment? If you have, dispose of them now!
Home processed foods are great if you are following established up-to-date safe guidelines. Your local extension agency is a good resource and can answer specific questions for you. Don’t take chances with the health you are preparing so hard to protect. We encourage safety first in all of your efforts. Keep up the great work building your family’s food stores.