Latin for “sausage disease,” Botulism can unquestionably bring out the wurst in people - Giant Microbes


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The Botulism Outbreak That Gave Rise to America’s Food Safety System

My seventh-grade science teacher repeated two facts so often that they are still crystal clear in my memory. The first was the definition of osmosis: “the passing of a substance from a lesser concentration to a greater concentration through a semi-permeable membrane.” The other was this: dented canned food can poison you with botulism, the deadliest toxin on the planet.

Why these two facts seemed among the most important things to teach 12-year-olds in the 1990s is not exactly clear, but it stands to reason that at least the latter fact came from inherited wisdom. This middle-aged teacher in Arkansas had likely heard about botulism in canned food from his own mother and grandmother,…

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 The Botulism Outbreak That Gave Rise to America’s Food Safety System

In solving the problem of botulism, an industry threatened with destruction instead came back with a set of practices that not only revolutionized canned food, but the entire relationship between science, government, and the food industry in America today. In this early phase, the canners were as much a player in policing themselves as were external regulators.


Botulism is a rare but serious paralytic illness caused by a nerve toxin that is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum and sometimes by strains of Clostridium butyricum and Clostridium baratii. There are five main kinds of botulism.


Botulinum toxin apparently does not cross the blood-brain barrier; therefore, central nervous system functions remain intact.


Botulism is a rare but serious illness caused by toxins released by bacteria called Clostridium botulinum. These toxins are among the most lethal substances known to man, according to the World Health Organization. Even a small amount can be deadly. Fortunately, infection from this type of bacteria is rare.


The way in which the condition is treated depends on the type of botulism you have, but treatment will usually involve neutralising the toxins with injections of special antibodies while the functions of the body (such as breathing) are supported.


Early symptoms are marked fatigue, weakness and vertigo, usually followed by blurred vision, dry mouth and difficulty in swallowing and speaking. Vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation and abdominal swelling may also occur. The disease can progress to weakness in the neck and arms, after which the respiratory muscles and muscles of the lower body are affected. The paralysis may make breathing difficult. There is no fever and no loss of consciousness. The symptoms are not caused by the bacterium itself, but by the toxin produced by the bacterium.

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