Doug likes to call me the canning queen; this is something I embrace. I’ve detailed my recent skill development in home food preservation, which has been part necessity and part interest. I’m a jam/sauce/pickle kind of guy though. Canned elk (or other meats) isn’t for me. It’s not a safety issue, because tested recipes exist at the fabulous National Center For Home Food Preservation site, it’s more of a quality thing.
Deviating from the prescribed steps can create the perfect environment for Clostridium botulinum spore outgrowth, germination and toxin production. Of the 20-30 cases of botulism in the U.S. every year, the majority are linked to improper home canning. It’s not just meat, last year in Oregon three folks became ill after eating under-processed beets.
KPLU in Seattle WA reports that a lawyer for the state of Washington’s Legislative Ethics Board gave himself botulism after eating elk that he canned using an adapted old family recipe which he processed in a pressure cooker and sped up the cooling time. Lucky to be alive, after months of recovery he has trouble walking and his taste buds don’t work.
On the Friday before Mother’s Day this year, Mike O’Connell was looking forward to spending the weekend with his wife at their home in the Seattle area. During the week, he lives alone in Olympia where he works. But he woke that morning with the strangest affliction: double vision.
The next morning, he felt even worse. He was bumping into walls. He called his wife.
“I told her, ‘You know, I’m going to stop by the ER on the way up just so somebody can tell me I’m okay and I’m not having a stroke,”’ he said.
“I didn’t know enough to bring up the fact that I had eaten canned meat,” said O’Connell.
Canned meat. You see, the night before O’Connell woke up with double vision, he had eaten some elk meat from a hunting trip. He canned it himself about a week earlier.
“Borrowed a pressure cooker, used an old family recipe for canning,” O’Connell said.
O’Connell’s mother had canned everything when he was a kid. He wanted to recapture a bit of his childhood. But things started going wrong from the start.
The pressure cooker was too small. O’Connell had already browned the meat in a cast iron pan. So he decided to shortcut the process. Once the jars sealed airtight he would take them out of the pressure cooker and start a new batch. The next day, he heard a pop in the pantry.
O’Connell found the jar with the popped seal, put it in the fridge and ate it the next day. He says it was delicious. The following week he heard another lid pop. Just as he had before, O’Connell found the jar and stuck it in the fridge. And a few days later he ate it for supper.
His breathing was getting shallow.
Daughter Weisfield was frustrated with the lack of answers and scared. She called a doctor she knew, a neurosurgeon. He ran through a short checklist of things to rule out. That list included a disease first identified in the 18th century: botulism. Weisfield looked it up online.
“It just made the hair on the back of my neck stand up because it was every single symptom just laid out exactly what my dad was experiencing,” she said.
Botulism is a paralyzing illness caused by what Centers for Disease Control calls the most potent toxin known to science. It’s rare; there were only 20 foodborne cases nationwide in 2011, just one in Washington state last year.
The doctors didn’t even wait to confirm botulism. They ordered a dose of anti-toxin from the CDC. Now the medical mystery was solved.
After receiving the anti-toxin, O’Connell transferred to Swedish Hospital in Seattle for rehab. It took just days for the Botulism to paralyze O’Connell. The recovery would be painfully slow.
“My eyes were the first thing to come back. I still walk with difficulty and use a cane. I have no taste with the exception of chocolate, so I buy chocolate ensure, chocolate mints and night before last, I found where they sell chocolate wine so I had some of that, too,” O’Connell said.