Dear Abby: how do I avoid botulism?

Doug introduced me to John Prine about 15 years ago. I’ve got a bunch of Prine albums in my iTunes and Dear Abby, from Sweet Revenge is a great kitchen sing-along song.

Food safety questions pop up in the Dear Abby-type advice columns, this weeks version from

Q: How do I avoid botulism poisoning in my potato salad and deviled eggs during the summer picnic season? I am very concerned about this.220px-Pauline_Phillips_1961

— Chris Snashall, Grove City, Ohio

A: Let’s first distinguish between botulism and other forms of foodborne illnesses.
Botulism is a severe illness in which a nerve toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum causes paralysis — and in severe cases, death.

Botulism is most often caused by food that isn’t properly home-canned. Typically it results when low-acid foods (such as potatoes or green beans) are not pressure-canned; the high temperature of that process is required to make them safe.

Because the botulinum toxin is destroyed by high temperatures, people who eat home-canned foods should, to ensure safety, consider boiling the food for 10 minutes before eating it. (or follow evaluated, science-based recipes/processing times -ben)

Other common causes of botulism are home-made herb or garlic oils that aren’t refrigerated, and potatoes that have been wrapped in foil to bake and either not kept hot enough or refrigerated in the foil. In both cases, the bacteria are left at a temperature at which they can multiply rapidly. (first they go from spore form to vegetative cell and then secrete the toxin while multiplying -ben).

Unless you are making your potato salad and deviled eggs with home-canned foods, botulism should not be a concern.

In 2015, home canned potatoes used in potato salad caused one of the largest bot outbreaks in the U.S. with over 20 illnesses and two deaths.

This entry was posted in Other Microorganisms and tagged by Ben Chapman. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is a professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University. As a teenager, a Saturday afternoon viewing of the classic cable movie, Outbreak, sparked his interest in pathogens and public health. With the goal of less foodborne illness, his group designs, implements, and evaluates food safety strategies, messages, and media from farm-to-fork. Through reality-based research, Chapman investigates behaviors and creates interventions aimed at amateur and professional food handlers, managers, and organizational decision-makers; the gate keepers of safe food. Ben co-hosts a biweekly podcast called Food Safety Talk and tries to further engage folks online through Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and, maybe not surprisingly, Pinterest. Follow on Twitter @benjaminchapman.