Of all the bacteria found in food, botulism is probably the most common. That’s why these botulism facts are so important to know.
In this article, I want to cover such important issues like botulism prevention, botulism symptoms, botulism treatment, but more importantly what causes botulism.
The signs of botulism aren’t always clear and that’s why I think it’s important for anyone preparing food for preservation needs, to understand botulism in canned food.
When people can foods, they often fall under the assumption that their cans will be bacteria free, because of the temperatures involved in preparing the foods.
But with botulism in particular, the temperatures involved may not always be high enough, or used for long enough to kill all the nasty bacteria. Time is one of the more important considerations when preparing food, as the heat may need sufficient time to kill all the spores.
It’s important to understand the times needed to prepare food for either freezing or canning, as some require longer than normal boiling times. Check out this article to get some common numbers and tips.
When it comes to food preservation, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. There are no second chances with food poisoning. Most of the time, all it comes down to is some proper preparation and strict adherence to recommendations, as well as understanding botulism facts.
What Exactly is a Botulism Bacteria?
The proper botulism definition is a gram positive, obligate anaerobic spore-forming bacterium. That’s a mouthful to say, but what it means is an organism that grows in the absence of oxygen.
Sound familiar? That’s exactly what you create when canning; an oxygen-free environment inside your can to prevent bacteria from growing. Turns out this little guy loves that environment. It chooses your oxygen-free cans on purpose.
Whilst I don’t want to turn this into a full-blown science lesson, I will point out a couple of brief facts which may help you to understand the enemy. Not all botulism spores harm people. Botulism bacteria produce seven specific strains of neurotoxins. Not all affect us and you can’t see them all.
Some will only cause food spoilage when present in food while the others live in the food without causing spoilage. That means the food won’t always be bad when you eat botulism-affected food. It’s kind of like a silent assassin. They resist heat and don’t die if simply boiled. There’s more to it than that.
The factories process the food in a specific way that is designed to kill off all the botulism spores. Their sterilization process prevents any spores from surviving. That is the same process you must replicate when canning in your own kitchen.
Botulism spores are completely heat resistant and die if heated to at least 80 degrees Celsius (176 degrees Fahrenheit) for a minimum of 30 minutes, or to 100 degrees Celsius (212 degrees Fahrenheit) for a minimum of 10 minutes.
What is Botulism Illness?
The illness itself isn’t something to take lightly. The tiniest amount of the bacteria is enough to infect food, the botulism toxin one of the most toxic. There are 5 different forms of botulism, which include
Forms of Botulism
Form #1: Inadvertent Botulism
The kind caught as a result of muscle treatments or cosmetic procedures like Botox injections
Form #2: Adult Infectious Botulism
Commonly found in patients after bowel surgery or those with intestinal diseases.
Form #3: Infant Botulism
Normally found in infants under a year old, the infant’s intestines infected with the spores. Scientists consider honey to be the most common cause, hence why they don’t recommended it for children under 12 months of age.
Form #4: Wound Botulism
Commonly caused via a deep wound or gunshot. Also commonly found in drug users.
Form #5: Food-Home Botulism
Commonly found in foods produced at home during a preservation process due to under-processing the foods.
That last one is the reason for this article. Read the last part again and understand it. “Due to Under-Processing”. And if you need any convincing that this condition isn’t serious enough, here are but a few of the symptoms caused by this disease.
- Double or Blurred Vision
- Drooping Eyelids
- Difficulty Swallowing
- Dry Mouth
- Muscle Weakness
And these symptoms are only the beginning of a slow-descending and symmetric paralysis. Whilst most symptoms appear between 12 and 36 hours after consuming the food, they can occur as early as 6 hours after and as much as 10 days after consumption.
That means you mightn’t know about it for more than a week and a half.
The following 5 botulism facts might be enough to show you how to avoid the bacterium from ever bothering you and your family. My suggestion is to take this article seriously and make sure you always watch the time when preserving food. Timing is pretty much the only thing that will save you from disaster.
Some Common Questions for Botulism Facts
A common question I’m often asked is whether commercial cans are safe. My answer is definitely yes. The canning process is one of the most strictly-controlled food preparation environments, thereby delivering some of the safest foods to the consumer.
Another question is how to know if canned food has botulism. The answer is you don’t, because the bacterium may be present in perfectly edible food.
All you can do is look for damage to the can. Discard any cans that have dents, damage or appear swollen in any way immediately. Don’t even bother with checking to see if maybe the food is OK. It really isn’t worth it.
Some people wonder if botulism is only limited to cans. The answer is no, although most spores found outside of cans is on foods that contain a low level of acid.
The 5 Botulism Facts
Remember the following 5 botulism facts and you should be ready to avoid the bacteria during your food preservation journey. There are always more things to consider, but with these 5, you might understand the most important parts of this threat.
As with any food preservation, be sure to take your time, understand the needs of the food you wish to prepare and use careful management when working your way through the job. Use common sense, careful timing and the appropriate tools you need to finish the job and everything should be perfect.
Fact #1: Low PH
The bacteria will not produce a toxin in foods that contain higher levels of acid. That is foods with a ph of less than 4.5
Fact #2: Low Water Activity
Around 1% water activity is needed in order for the bacteria to grow and produce toxins. That level is around a 10% salt solution which is why it’s common to salt foods to preserve them.
Fact #3: Temperature
Whilst most strains of botulism grow between 35-40 degrees Celsius (95-104 degrees Fahrenheit), some may still grow in temperatures as low as 3 degrees Celsius (37 degrees Fahrenheit).
Fact #4: Food Preservatives
Many food handlers use preservatives to inhibit the growth of botulism spores. Some include nitrite, sorbic acid, phenolic antioxidants, polyphosphates and more.
Fact #5: Competition
Botulism spores aren’t the only bacteria looking to invade your food. More bacteria varieties exist and all of them compete for space inside your food cans. These other bacteria reduce botulism spores’ chances of survival by taking over their space.