Essential Procedures to Prevent Botulism Outbreaks

Botulism is a life-threatening paralytic illness caused by neurotoxins produced by an anaerobic, gram-positive, spore-forming bacterium—Clostridium botulinum. Botulism is a rare disease and only affects a few hundred persons each year in the United States.

Foodborne botulism is the type that is classically associated with clinical botulism. Foodborne botulism is caused by eating foods that contain botulinum toxin. In foodborne botulism, it is the pre-formed toxin that causes illness, not the bacterium itself. Most of the foodborne botulism events reported annually in the United States are associated with home-canned foods that have not been safely processed. Occasionally, though, commercially processed foods are implicated as the source of a botulism event, including sausages, beef stew, canned vegetables, and seafood products.

Wound botulism occurs when a wound becomes infected with Clostridium botulinum spores that then begin to produce toxin. The toxin gets absorbed into the bloodstream and leads to symptoms of botulism poisoning. Wound botulism often occurs in the setting of an infected injection site where contaminated heroin has been used, but occasionally, it can occur with other wounds as well.

Infant botulism is the most common form of botulism in the United States, with approximately 150 cases per year. In infant botulism, the Clostridium botulinum bacteria grow in the intestines of the infant (because of less competition from the “normal” gut bacteria that adults carry) and begin to make toxin.

Most infant botulism cases cannot be prevented because the bacteria that causes the disease is in soil and dust. The bacteria can be found inside homes—on floors, carpets, and countertops—even after cleaning. For almost all children and adults who are healthy, ingesting botulism spores is not dangerous and will not cause botulism—it is the toxin that is dangerous. However, for reasons we do not understand, some infants get botulism when the spores get into their digestive tracts, grow, and produce the toxin.

Honey can contain the bacteria that causes infant botulism, so parents should not feed honey to children younger than 12 months. Honey is safe for people one year of age and older.

The types of foods implicated in botulism outbreaks vary according to food preservation and eating habits in different regions. Any food that is conducive to outgrowth and toxin production, that when processed allows spore survival, and that is not subsequently heated before consumption, can be associated with botulism.

Almost any type of food that is not very acidic (pH above 4.6) can support growth and toxin production by C. botulinum. Botulinum toxin has been demonstrated in a considerable variety of foods, such as canned corn, peppers, green beans, soups, beets, asparagus, mushrooms, ripe olives, spinach, tuna fish, chicken, chicken livers, and liver pate, luncheon meats, ham, sausage, stuffed eggplant, lobster, and smoked and salted fish.

Botulinum toxin is heat-labile, or unstable if heated to a certain temperature, and can be destroyed if heated and held at 80 degrees Centigrade (176 degrees Fahrenheit) for ten minutes or longer.

Botulism: Marler Clark, The Food Safety Law Firm, is the nation’s leading law firm representing victims of Botulism outbreaks. The Botulism lawyers of Marler Clark have represented thousands of victims of Botulism and other foodborne illness outbreaks and have recovered over $800 million for clients. Marler Clark is the only law firm in the nation with a practice focused exclusively on foodborne illness litigation. Our Botulism lawyers have litigated Botulism cases stemming from outbreaks traced to carrot juice, pesto, cheese and chili.

If you or a family member became ill with Botulism after consuming food and you’re interested in pursuing a legal claim, contact the Marler Clark Botulism attorneys for a free case evaluation.