Open Accessibility Menu

Summer harvest season: Time to be botulism aware

Summer harvest season: Time to be botulism aware

Food safety is always important, but it must be at the top of your mind during the summer harvest and food preservation season.

Botulism is a rare but potentially deadly illness caused by a poison most commonly produced by a germ called Clostridium botulinum. The bacteria are found in soil and can survive, grow, and produce a toxin in certain conditions, such as when food is improperly canned. The toxin affects the nerves and can result in paralysis, even death.

You cannot see, smell, or taste botulinum toxin—but taking even a small taste of food containing this toxin can be deadly. Botulism poisoning is a medical emergency. The best way to prevent foodborne botulism is by following instructions for safe home canning carefully. The USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning is a valuable reference. Don’t use great-grandma’s recipes for canning if they don’t follow these guidelines.

If you have any doubt about the safety of any food – home canned or store-bought, throw it out. Foods may be contaminated with the botulism toxin if:

  • The container is leaking, bulging or swollen;
  • The container looks damaged, cracked or abnormal;
  • The container spurts liquid or foam when opened;
  • The food is discolored, moldy or smells bad.

Never taste food to determine whether it is safe. Throw it away. If any spills, clean it up with a solution of ¼ cup of bleach mixed with 2 cups of water.

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms for foodborne botulism typically begin 12 to 36 hours after the toxin enters the body. They include:

  • Weakness of the muscles that control the eyes, face, mouth, and throat. Weakness may spread to the neck, arms, torso, and legs.
  • Difficulty swallowing or speaking
  • Trouble breathing
  • Blurred or double vision
  • Drooping eyelids
  • Dry mouth
  • Nausea, vomiting and abdominal cramps
  • Paralysis

In addition to practicing safe home canning, you can reduce your risk of botulism poisoning by:

  • Choosing restaurants with high cleanliness ratings;
  • Storing cooking oils infused with garlic or herbs in the refrigerator;
  • Putting leftovers in the refrigerator promptly;
  • Washing your hands thoroughly and often;
  • Never give honey to infants younger than 12 months, as honey may contain botulism spores.