Last updated on February 18th, 2014
It is just as important to store food safely, as it is to store food. One significant consideration is the nasty bacteria botulism and its deadly toxins. Food-borne botulism may be found in your home food stores unless you are careful.
Information sourced from The American Civil Defense Association
Botulism is a rare, deadly poisoning which is caused from toxins produced by bacteria known as Clostridium botulinum. Is is 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.
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 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, sparagus, potatoes, and oil infused with garlic.
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 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.
Clean foods well before cooking or processing.
FOLLOW RECIPES. Use proper techniques when canning foods at home to ensure all bacteria is destroyed. Sterilize home-canned foods by pressure cooking at 250° 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.
If you wrap potatoes in foil before baking, eat them hot or store in the refrigerator, do not leave them out at room temperature.
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 (less than 10% 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. But 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!
Don’t let this warning scare you from getting into canning and preserving your own foods! It really is simple to avoid this problem. Just follow recipes exactly (from reputable sources). Know the difference between ‘regular’ canning (boiling) and pressure canning, and know which foods to use either method. This type of information is pretty much always available in the manufacturers instructions and cookbooks.