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How many botulism cases cause death per year?

Fortunately, we have very few, if any, botulism cases associated with foods in the US. Now we only see what is known as "wound botulism." This is what happens when a cut is not cleaned out well and scabs over. In a very few cases, this will provide an ideal environment for the botulism organism to grow. Again, very fortunately this is an extremely rare event.

The most famous food-borne outbreak of botulism was several years ago when a garlic-in-oil mixture at a restaurant made two people ill. The story is told that a young intern who had just taken a nutrition course treated the two in the hospital and recognized the symptoms from their description in the textbook. It may be just a story, but it makes a nice illustration for class!

Many of us believe that home canned foods are probably not as inherently safe as the data might suggest, because almost everyone cooks the food before serving it. Botulism toxin is destroyed by boiling for 10 minutes. So even if the products were improperly canned, people would still be safe because of the cooking. The other nice(?) thing is that there are some spoilage organisms that are even more heat resistant than the one that causes botulism so the food starts to ooze or fizz out of the jar. Most people (but not all, I must report) are sensible enough to throw the stuff out rather than try to eat it.

The only stories I know about people getting sick from botulism (and they are really old stories) are about people who tasted a green bean from the jar before cooking or something like that. Again, these are just stories and I have never been able to track down their source.

There is a new program at the University of Georgia to revisit all of the old canning, freezing, and drying recipes. Dr. Elizabeth Andress heads that program. You can find more information about it at The group has decided to focus on the freezing and drying recommendations first, since they are in the most disarray and the canning recommendations seem to be working well based on the lack of food-borne illness.


Douglas L. Holt, Ph.D., Chair, Food Science and Extension Specialist, University of Missouri-Columbia






Last update: Tuesday, May 05, 2009



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