Botulism Poisoning From Home-Canned Foods Is Rare but Serious and Deadly

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I had a call this week about home-canned green beans that were improperly processed, sparking a memory of botulism poisoning from home-canned green beans back in 2008 for an Ohio grandfather and his three grandchildren. A Virginia couple died in 2007 from improperly canned vegetables. More recently, botulism poisonings from other home-canned vegetables have been reported.  This led me to read more on this topic at Barfblog.com, a website with the goal to increase food safety awareness and safe practices in the food service industry. My food safety hero, Dr. Ben Chapman with N.C. State University, is one of the writers for this blog.

Botulism poisonings in the United States are rare but not something I recommend increasing your risk to.  Botulism toxin causes paralysis, starting at your eyes and mouth and working down the body, often leading to not being able to breathe without a ventilator. Eating a microscopic amount put one Ashe County woman in the hospital for 11 weeks on a ventilator.  It took over a week to determine the problem and begin treatment. Got your attention?  The fact is she didn’t even swallow the improperly home-canned carrots. She thought they tasted funny and spit them out.  The funny taste was most likely from spoilage organisms, not from the toxin.  Bacteria and toxins that cause food borne illness cannot be seen, smelled, or tasted.  Scary, huh?

A recent botulism outbreak occurred at an Ohio church potluck.  Consuming potato salad made from home-canned potatoes led to 20 illnesses and one death of a 54-year-old woman.  My heart goes out to the person who canned those potatoes.  Most of us food preservers enjoy sharing our homemade products with family and friends, but we must follow safe procedures.

Low-acid foods, including all vegetables except rhubarb, should be processed for a specific amount of time in a pressure canner. The temperature in a pressure canner gets hot enough (240°F) to destroy botulism spores. There is not a safe canning recipe for summer squash or zucchini – it is best to freeze or pickle these items. It is also recommended to only freeze spaghetti squash.

High-acid foods, such as fruits (except figs, tomatoes, and melons) and pickles, should be processed for a specific amount of time in a boiling water canner.  Botulism spores cannot grow in high-acid foods.  Using a boiling water bath will destroy yeast, molds, and most bacteria.

All is not lost; you can safely preserve fruits and vegetables. The key is to use a tested recipe from a reliable source with the correct equipment and follow a few food safety precautions. Old family recipes, though precious, may not be safe.  The following are several reliable sources of recipes and guidelines for preserving foods that I often use: Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving, USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning (available online as a free download), and the National Center for Home Food Preservation (http://nchfp.uga.edu/).  A list of these and other reliable sources can be found at https://www.ces.ncsu.edu/depts/fcs/Preservation/. (The use of brand names in this publication does not imply endorsement by the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service of the products or services named nor discrimination against similar products or services not mentioned.)

For more information and techniques on preserving your produce, please contact Janice Fields, Extension Family and Consumer Sciences Agent with North Carolina Cooperative Extension, Robeson County Center, at 671-3276, by E-mail at Janice_Fields@ncsu.edu, or visit our website at http://robeson.ces.ncsu.edu/. North Carolina State University and North Carolina A&T State University commit themselves to positive action to secure equal opportunity regardless of race, color, creed, national origin, religion, sex, age, veteran status, or disability. In addition, the two Universities welcome all persons without regard to sexual orientation.

Written By

Photo of Janice FieldsJanice FieldsExtension Agent, Family and Consumer Sciences (910) 671-3276 janice_fields@ncsu.eduRobeson County, North Carolina
Posted on Jun 22, 2015
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