Avoiding Food-Borne Illness This Labor Day -- and Beyond
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
Botulism can be treated with a substance that counteracts the
toxin if it is diagnosed early. But the breathing problems and paralysis that
occur with severe botulism may require a ventilator to breathe for the patient
for weeks, plus intensive medical and nursing care. The paralysis slowly
improves after several weeks if the patient survives.