Canning Safety: Avoiding Foodborn Botulism

With botox being all the rage, who wouldn’t want a little clostridium botulinum in their diet? You! These little bacteria pack a huge punch in the form of possibly death when ingested, and most cases of botulism in the United States are caused by carelessness or ignorance. This poison is so incredibly simple to avoid that there really is no excuse fot missing it as well.

What is Botulism

Botulism is poisoning by botulinum toxin, an incredibly potent paralytic produced by a bacteria, clostridium botulinum. Once inside you, only minor amounts are sufficient to cause all of your muscles to stop moving. By all, I mean all. Your lungs are included in that list.

Clostridium botulinum are extremely common bacteria as well. Their dormant spores are found almost everywhere. It survives freezing and boiling, too. Altogether, this is a pretty terrifying prospect until you find out one simple thing: they are very picky about where they thrive. They need to have controlled pH, relatively low sugar, low oxygen and controlled temperature to grow.

To put their poison into context, I’m going to use a quick picture. Imagine a pile the pure toxin on your desk. A pile of over 1.5 lbs could probably kill the entire human population of the world. Fortunately, it hasn’t been weaponized in any way.

Preventing Food Botulism

Think of all the food you have in your house. Since botulism can’t thrive in oxygen, you can immediately stop worrying about anything open to the air. That leaves sealed jars and closed, airtight containers. Now, things in your fridge are fine, since they are too cold to thrive, so eliminate them.

Acidic foods are fine as well. That means everything from jams to pickles and canned fruit are AOK. Acidity will prevent spores from growing. Concentrated sugars like honey and corn syrup are all too high in sugar, so the bacteria won’t grow there (unless you dilute them and seal the container).

For the most part, just about everything you own is safe. The only things you usually have to worry about are jars of low acid foods. Jars and cans of vegetables that aren’t pickled must be canned using a “high pressure” system. Tall pressure cookers are typical, since these can superheat the contents to greater than boiling, effectively killing the bacteria spores.

A common one to be concerned about are “infused oils.” If you make them yourself or buy them from the store, you should refrigerate them to store them. Once the oil has ingredients in it, those can be food for the spores and they will grow if the container is sealed and left out.

Final Notes

If, after eating canned foods or homemade preserved foods, you or someone you know begins to have “descending paralysis” which is to say, trouble controlling muscles starting at the top (their face) and moving downward, this can be a sign of botulism. Any paralysis should be treated as a medical emergency unless there is a known reason for it, and you should see a doctor immediately. Botulism can be deadly, but with a respirator and significant time, you should recover with no lasting ill effects.


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U.S. Food and Drug Administration: