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Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Botulism: Don't Worry, Be Happy

Once upon a time, Russell Baker, the former NY Times columnist (who was sort of the the Maureen Dowd of his day, except that he was often funny and insightful) was stuck, and didn't know what to write for his column. He went for a walk, and, fortunately, a potato fell out of a window onto his head. Presto! A column.

Like Baker, I too didn't know what to blog about, when, Presto! I opened a years-old can of tomato paste, and it exploded, spurting tomato-infused oil all over my shirt. Ah-hah, I cried, this must be one of those bulging cans I've been warned about. Botulism! I discarded the can.

I was all set to write about how wonderful it is to live in the 21st century, when we've at last wiped out the scourge of botulism. A little googling, however, reveals that botulism has been pretty much eliminated from commercial canning since at least the early 1900s. It's long been known how long to heat canned foods to kill botulism spores and commercial canners do it. (It turns out to take hours of heating to eliminate the spores in canned foods, but 10 minutes of boiling before eating will kill the toxic bacteria, making food safe to eat). For the last 100 years, botulism has been very rare, even in home-canned foods.

You might want to avoid traditional native Alaskan preservation methods, and beached whales aren't that safe either: Botulism is now so rare that these are significant causes in adults. About a sixth of all botulism outbreaks occur in Alaska, which is to say, about 4 or 5 cases a year.

Botulism is actually a serious issue for infants (who shouldn't be fed honey) and can infect wounds (avoid smoking black-tar heroin). Check out the CDC guidelines, the CDC epidemiological manual, or this historical review.

But I'm not so sure I should have discarded the tomato paste can. I want my 59 cents back.


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