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What in the world is … botulism?


The headline reads: “Nacho cheese to blame for rare botulism outbreak.” Just outside of Sacramento, California, a man died from botulism in May after consuming nachos he bought at a gas station—and nine other locals were hospitalized from the same source. And while these outbreaks may be rare, it brings up the question: What IS botulism, and how do I keep from getting poisoned (other than, perhaps, avoiding gas station nachos)?

Botulism is caused by a toxin (Clostridium botulinum and sometimes Clostridium butyricum and Clostridium baratii bacteria) that attacks the body’s nerves. After consuming the toxin, symptoms usually appear within 18 to 36 hours, and include difficulty breathing, double or blurred vision, muscle weakness and difficulty swallowing—and it can be fatal. Basically, it’s real bad news.

How on earth can you avoid this nasty poison? Botulism loves living in home-canned, preserved, or fermented foods with low acid levels, like most vegetables, red meats, poultry and figs. In fact, improperly canned vegetables are the most common cause of botulism in the U.S. Taking proper precautions when preparing these foods is vital.

Other foods to have caution with include herb-infused oils, bottled garlic, and baked potatoes in foil (always remove the paper immediately after cooking!). If you see a can of veggies that has bulges, is swollen or looks damaged or cracked, do not open it and throw it out (click here to learn how to do that properly!).

Not sure about that jar of asparagus from Aunt Gertrude? How long have those pickled green beans been in the back of the cabinet? Like they taught us in school…When in doubt, throw it out!

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