Last week in the Columbus Dispatch there was an article that circulated quickly around the state concerning food safety that hits near and dear to my heart. Several individuals were hospitalized and one person has died after attending a church potluck and the suspected culprit has been identified as botulism. What do we know about this food born toxin? Botulism comes from a group of rod-shaped bacteria, Clostridium botulinum, which can be found in soil and grows best in low-oxygen environments. The bacteria form spores that release a toxin, making people sick. Nationwide, 160 cases of botulism and one related death were reported in 2012, the most recent figures available from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Food that is infected with the bacteria will not smell or look different, so there’s no way to tell the food is contaminated. Symptoms of botulism include double vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, and muscle weakness. The symptoms typically begin 18 to 36 hours after eating contaminated food, according to the CDC. Severe botulism can lead to respiratory failure and death. Children, older adults, pregnant women and the chronically ill are the most susceptible to this or any food-borne illnesses.
Many cases of food-borne botulism are linked to home-canned foods with low acid content, according to the CDC. Shannon Carter, the Family & Consumer Science Educator in Fairfield County shares the following information with us:
Foods such as vegetables, meat and soups are more susceptible to contamination because they have less acid. The only way to keep those foods safe during the home-canning process is to use a pressure canner, which can reach 240 degrees, to destroy spores. Canning in a water bath, which is fine for fruit or jams, will not keep low-acid food safe, Carter said.
In addition to pressure canning, individuals should boil home-canned food for 20 minutes before serving them, Carter said.
Carter also advised against following grandma's recipe for canning because food has changed over the years. "We need to use current recipes for home-canned foods that have been tested rigorously."
Canned products purchased at a store are less likely to cause botulism because commercial canners reach higher temperatures and are less susceptible to human error, Carter said. However, consumers still should check cans before using them and toss any products that are bulging, swollen or out-of-date, she added.
Given how rare botulism is, potluck attendees are much more likely to go home with a stomachache from E.coli, Salmonella or Listeria. But those bacteria can be prevented by keeping food properly heated or cooled.
Food should not be left at room temperature for more than two hours to avoid bacteria. The food danger zone is between 40 degrees and 140 degrees Fahrenheit, so hot food should be kept warmer than 140 degrees and cold food should be kept cooler than 40 degrees, Carter said. On a hot summer day, food should not be left outside for more than one hour, she advised.
"Bacteria multiplies rapidly in that danger zone," Carter said. A food-safe thermometer is the only way to know for certain how warm or cold the food is.
Other food safety tips:
- Avoid cross-contamination of raw meat and other food such as vegetables. Use a different cutting board or be sure to wash the whole area thoroughly.
- Cook food at proper temperatures. Meats should be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees.
- Never taste food to see if it is safe, especially if it comes from a container that is leaking, has bulges or looks damaged.
- Wash your hands before cooking and eating.
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