Toxin in a Can

Clostridium botulinum bacteria


As a food-borne disease, botulism has been eradicated from the United States for the most, but its dangers still lurk in home-processed foods, specially in canned foods. The disease is caused by a very potent toxin that attacks the nervous system, paralyzing its victim.

Produced by the bacteria Clostridium botulinum, the toxin kills by paralyzing the respiratory and musculoskeletal system of a person. Eventually, the disease can prove to be fatal because of respiratory failure.

To avoid being hit by this toxin when making canned foods at home like pickles, jams or jellies, the following facts can be helpful.

The bacteria grows well in acidic environments, so steer clear of storing food in vinegar, yoghurt or other foods with a high acidic content. Also, the organism is susceptible to heat, so heat-sterilizing instruments and cans used for storage is critical.

As such, Clostridium botulinum is found in the air, water and commonly in our surroundings. But it isn’t until it enters a can ,that it truly turns its toxic colors on. If this sounds like something out of “I dream of Jeannie”, then read on to figure out what happens in that can. According to the WHO website, Clostridium botulinum produces spores, or seeds wrapped in a coat of thick material that doesn’t let the seed matter come out until all the conditions are right for the seed to germinate. It turns out that being inside a can deprives the badcteria of oxygen and starts it on a non-oxygen form of respiration (called anaerobic respiration).

The anaerobic respiration is what sets off a cycle of events that eventually lead to the bursting and germination of the Clostridium botulinum spores. Good for the bacteria! But the spores are also the agents that carry the deadly toxin and from then on, the bacteria really ruin things for humans. Small, in fact microscopic in size, yet so potent in their attack, the invisible world of the tiny, is humbling and worrying at the same time.

The bacteria can cause any or all of the following symptoms of botulism in humans :ย  double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness. These symptoms generally begin 18 to 36 hours after eating contaminated canned food, but can sometimes begin with 6 hours or not until 10 days too.

So even though its incidence has gone down to nearly zero in the last few decades, botulism is a disease to look out for,ย  especially for home-grown and home-packed foods. While adults are not as susceptible, infants and children are, and making goodies at home for them, should not turn out to be a nightmare.

As an aside, the bacteria is also easily spread through open wounds, so not having those in a kitchen or near children is a good idea. The CDC website fact-sheet on this bacteria also says that botulism victims can be treated, but the procedures are often dire since the entire respiratory system can be affected or if the body is paralyzed by the infection.

The bacterial message seems to be clear: Yes, we can!

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