Skip to content

Sep. 1, 2000 -- As millions of us prepare for our traditional end-of-summer Labor Day picnics or barbecues, experts advise special care to prevent botulism and other potentially fatal food-borne illnesses.

"Washing your hands and using proper food hygiene can cut in half the 100,000,000 cases of food-borne illness that occur each year," food safety expert Philip Tierno, PhD, director of clinical microbiology and diagnostic immunology at New York University Medical Center, tells WebMD. "Common sense can protect you."

Each year, 9,000 people die from food-borne illnesses, and one-half of these deaths could be prevented by the same measures, he says.

The end of summer also means people are preparing for winter -- many by canning foods from the summer bounty. In the Sept. 1 issue of the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Illinois researchers report that a healthy 68-year-old man developed botulism after eating home-canned pickled eggs in November 1997.

Potentially fatal, botulism is caused by foods contaminated by the clostridium botulinum bacterium, which is commonly found in the soil. A toxin is produced when the bacteria grow in improperly canned foods and occasionally in contaminated fish. In adults, the toxin is absorbed from the intestines and attaches to the nerves, causing blurred vision, dry mouth, difficulty in swallowing or speaking, general weakness, and shortness of breath. Severe botulism may result in dangerous breathing problems, paralysis, and potentially death.

In the U.S., there are about 110 cases of botulism reported each year, and approximately 25% are caused by food, according to the CDC.

In the newly reported case, the man had eaten pickled eggs that he had prepared seven days before. He developed nausea and stomach pain 12 hours after eating the eggs, report researchers from the Illinois Department of Public Health. Laboratory tests found the botulism toxin in the pickled egg mixture. Luckily, the man recovered.

Some other common botulism culprits include home-canned foods with low acid content such as asparagus, green beans, beets, and corn.

To reduce the risk of botulism when pickling food, foods should be washed and cooked adequately. Hands, utensils, containers, and other surfaces that come into contact with food should be cleaned with soap and warm water. Containers where pickling occurs should be sterilized in boiling water, the researchers advise. In addition, refrigeration during pickling is advised, and canned or pickled foods that are opened should also be refrigerated, they write.

Healthy Recipe Finder

Browse our collection of healthy, delicious recipes, from WebMD and Eating Well magazine.

Top searches: Chicken, Chocolate, Salad, Desserts, Soup

Healthy Recipe Finder