Ask a Food Safety Scientist: What is Clostridium botulinum?

Clostridium botulinum can cause botulism.Have you heard of this intimidating bacteria? Most people have heard of the disease it can cause—botulism.

Clostridium botulinum is an anaerobic bacteria, meaning that it thrives best in an oxygen-deprived environment. In addition to this, the bacteria can produce spores, which can survive until the conditions are ideal for bacterial growth. The bacteria produce a toxin, which causes botulism.

Botulism can be dangerous, especially for children and elderly adults. Let’s discuss symptoms of botulism, what foods Clostridium botulinum is found in, and how you can prevent foodborne illness from Clostridium botulinum.

What are the symptoms of botulism?

Botulism is usually characterized by paralysis or weakness of muscles in the face, difficulty speaking or swallowing, or blurred vision. The disease is very serious for infants. They can show similar symptoms of muscle weakness, but can also have a hard time eating or crying.

Left untreated, botulism could cause lasting effects, or even death. It’s important to recognize these symptoms and get proper medical treatment if you notice any of them.

What types of food is Clostridium botulinum commonly found in?

Dented can of pork and beansBecause Clostridium botulinum thrives in an oxygen-deprived environment, canned foods can become a breeding ground for this bacteria. If the food is handled improperly before it’s sealed, Clostridium botulinum can grow to dangerous levels and would likely cause foodborne illness. In addition, if the food is improperly sealed or the can becomes dented, Clostridium botulinum will also grow.

Another food that Clostridium botulinum is found in is honey. The spores from the bacteria can can get into honey and contaminate it. This is one reason why it’s recommended for infants to avoid honey until they are at least one year old. Because you can’t tell what honey could be contaminated or not, you should always purchase food through an approved supplier.

One more food that Clostridium botulinum can thrive in is baked potatoes wrapped in aluminum foil. The aluminum foil creates the anaerobic environment that the bacteria needs to grow, and if the potatoes are left at the right temperature for long enough, they will become contaminated with the dangerous toxin that causes botulism.

It’s important to take extra care when preparing these types of foods. Don’t leave them out longer than four hours. If you are cooking baked potatoes for later, make sure to unwrap them after they’re done and follow the two-stage cooling method.

How can you prevent botulism?

One of the biggest ways you can prevent botulism outbreaks from occurring in your establishment is by examining your canned food. When Clostridium botulinum is allowed to grow, it will cause cans to bulge. If you have any bulging cans in your storage, or notice that any cans are bulging when you receive food, be sure to reject the shipment or discard the cans.

In addition, if you have any dented cans, even if you think it’s only a small dent, discard them as well. Dents can hide little holes in the cans, which allow Clostridium botulinum and other bacteria to thrive.

Finally, if you notice any leaky cans, always discard the food and then clean and sanitize where it was stored.

If you hear of a recall involving honey or canned foods, follow the manufacturer’s instructions. If the recall involves Clostridium botulinum, be sure to discard the food and clean and sanitize where the food was stored.

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— Janilyn Hutchings

Updated: February 14, 2019 — 10:41 pm

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