Improperly home-canned peas linked to botulism illnesses

A couple of years ago I ran into a barfblog reader who commented to me, ‘You’re really scared of botulism, aren’t you?’ This wasn’t a random question, it was related to a few things I had posted over a couple of year period. I think he thought I was irrationally worried about it.

Scared isn’t how I would describe it. Rattled and in awe of are probably better terms. The toxin blocks motor nerve terminals at the myoneural junction, causing paralysis. It starts with the mouth, eyes, face and moves down through the body. It often results in paralysis of the chest muscles and diaphragm, making a ventilator necessary. Months of recovery follow an intoxication.

Maybe I am scared.

There isn’t a whole lot of botulism in the U.S. every year, and not all of it is foodborne – (infant botulism is more common); over the past two decades, improperly home preserved foods have been identified as a common vehicle.

Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (my favorite Thursday read, see my coveted mug at right) nails it again with a detailed report of three botulism cases in 2018 – all linked to an improperly canned jar of peas.

Here are some highlights from lead author Bergeron and colleagues:

On June 6, 2018, at 1:30 p.m., the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene was notified of three related women who had arrived at a hospital 4 hours earlier for evaluation for acute nausea, dizziness, blurred vision, slurred speech, ptosis, thick-feeling tongue, and shortness of breath. Two patients developed respiratory failure, requiring intubation and mechanical ventilation in the emergency department, and the third patient was intubated at 7 p.m. that evening.

Approximately 14 hours before arriving at the hospital, the patients had shared a homemade potato salad containing home-canned peas. The family’s freezer had malfunctioned, and, to preserve some commercially produced frozen peas, one of the patients had home-canned the peas 1–2 weeks before consumption.

The patient who prepared the home-canned peas was a novice home canner. She used a peach preserves recipe with a boiling water technique, replacing the peaches with frozen vegetables. The patient was unaware that low-acid foods (e.g., vegetables) must be canned in a pressure canner rather than a boiling water canner to eliminate C. botulinum spores (1). After the jars cooled, the patient correctly checked for jar seal. One of the jars of peas was not sealed, so the patient covered and refrigerated it, and the family consumed the peas in the potato salad.

 

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About Ben Chapman

Dr. Ben Chapman is an associate 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.