On April 21, 2015, a church potluck dinner in Ohio resulted in the death of one elderly female and 23 others hospitalized due to a case of Botulism. The food borne disease is believed to have originated from home-canned potatoes used in potato salad.
Botulism is deadly food poisoning caused by bacterium (botulinum) growing on improperly canned meats and other preserved foods. It greatly affects infants and small children, elderly individuals, people with chronic health illness, and pregnant women. It is one of the deadliest of food borne illnesses, and is not restricted to any one type of canned food, but it is easily prevented by following proper canning procedures.
“You want to boil the jars and boil the lids to keep them hot until you are ready to use it,” Johanna Hicks, Family & Consumer Sciences Agent of Texas A&M AgriLife Extension, said. “There are different kinds of packing procedures for different foods. Some of them can do a cold pack while others use a hot pack; some use syrup and others use juice. So it can get kind of complicated because it depends on the actual type of food.”
The most important sign as to whether or not the proper canning procedures have been followed depends on if the lids of stored lids pop after time in storage.
“Once they have been set out, if they don’t seal, if you don’t hear that little pop meaning that the lid has sucked in, then that means that it was not processed properly, or that the lid may have not been screwed on correctly, or something may have been around the rim of the jar that wasn’t wiped off before it was processed,” Hicks said. “So there could be any number of reasons why it didn’t actually seal.”
Botulism, along with listeria, which became a recent problem for the Bluebell company, and six others are common in food that hasn’t been properly processed. All food borne illnesses can be killed with proper heating, even botulism, which can occur even in commercially canned goods.
“Anytime that you see a commercially canned product with a bulging lid, or any sign of rusting, you want to avoid those,” Hicks said. “A lot of stores will put damaged goods in a basket for quick sale. You have to be really careful with those. Some of them will be okay, but if they have a really sharp crease or any signs of water damage, rust, bulging lid, or small cuts in the side, you generally want to avoid those. Even though it is cheap, it’s better to be safe than sorry”
Food borne illnesses, such as botulism, can show signs of symptoms late after digestion, sometimes as late as two weeks. Botulism, among other food borne illnesses, is known to imitate symptoms of common sicknesses.
“The symptoms for all food borne illnesses, especially botulism, are all the same in that they are similar to flu symptoms,” Hicks said. “You get a headache, fever, nausea, diarrhea, which all sounds just like the flu. The only difference is that with food borne illness, it can progressively get worse.”
Steps to prevent food borne illnesses during canning are easy to follow. These steps include sticking only to the recipe and adding nothing extra, starting with clean hands and sterilized equipment, and keep pets and animals away from food and equipment during the canning process.
A food borne illness itself has no taste, smell, or visual signs of contamination. If any home food preserved cans show any of the aforementioned signs of contamination, it is best to discard the product. Further questions about food borne illnesses and canning procedures can be answered by Johanna Hicks at the Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.