The death of a 37-year-old man from foodborne botulism linked to nacho cheese sauce sheds light on a rare foodborne illness that’s more frequently associated with unsafe home-canning methods.
The toxin that causes botulism thrives in low-oxygen conditions, and can cause serious, sometimes fatal illness, according to the World Health Organization.
The most common form of botulism is infant botulism, which happens when spores of bacteria get into a baby’s intestines. Infant botulism tends to afflict babies between 2-to-8 months old who are exposed to spores of bacteria from raw honey or contaminated soil.
Wound botulism, anther common form of the illness, is most often associated with black tar heroin users and develops when bacteria spores enter an open cut, multiply and produce the toxin that causes botulism. Wound botulism is also associated with traumatic injuries and surgery.
Though dangerous, botulism is uncommon. And foodborne botulism outbreaks, like the one linked to the cheese sauce sold at a gas station store in Walnut Grove, California, are relatively rare.
There were just 39 confirmed cases of foodborne botulism reported to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2015, and 15 cases reported in 2014.
The California case led to the death of Martin Galindo and caused the hospitalization of nine others, according to state health officials.
Foordborne botulism typically occurs from unsafe home-canning methods, such as failing to use a pressure canner for some foods or ignoring spoilage signs, according to the CDC. Low-acid foods, such as green beans, corn and beets, as well as fermented seafood, are common foodborne botulism culprits.
For safe home canning, read the USDA’s safety guide and always inspect cans ― both store-bought and home-canned ― before consuming. If cans are swollen or cracked, if the food inside is discolored, smells bad or spurts from the container when opened, it should be thrown out.
Because the botulism toxin attacks the nerves, symptoms include difficulty swallowing, facial weakness, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, trouble breathing, nausea and paralysis, which typically set in between 12 and 36 hours after consuming the toxin, according to the Mayo Clinic.
An injection of antitoxin, which attaches itself to the botulism toxin to keep it from attacking nerves, can reduce symptoms, but it can’t undo damage that’s already been caused. Nerves regenerate, though, and many people recover after extended rehabilitation therapy.
Regardless of treatment, botulism is fatal in about 5 percent of cases, and without treatment more than 50 percent of people who contract the disease would die, according to Harvard Health Publications.