What is Botulism — For Real

We have been writing a lot of HACCP plans lately for food establishments across the country. Most are preparing menu items using sous vide method cooking or vacuum packaging some of their products for food storage purposes. We often get asked why a variance and HACCP plan are necessary. According to the FDA Food Code, certain preparation practices require an operation to get special permission — or a variance — and one of those practices is reduced-oxygen packaging, or ROP. Both sous vide and vacuum packaging are reduced oxygen processes, meaning the amount of oxygen normally present in a food package is reduced. Reducing the oxygen present can reduce the spoilage rate for TCS foods, but it also allows bacteria that grow best in the absence of oxygen (anaerobic bacteria) to thrive. (TCS = Time/Temperature Control for Safety.) One biological risk to food being prepared in this way is botulism, an anaerobic bacteria.
Going hand-in-hand with a variance request from a health department is a HACCP plan. HACCP, of course, stands for Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point. A HACCP program is based on identifying significant hazards at specific points within a product’s flow through an operation and detailing how those hazards will be prevented or eliminated. A HACCP must be submitted with the variance request, providing detailed information as to how the sous vide or vacuum packaging will be done.

What is foodborne botulism?
Clostridium botulinum is found in nature — in the soil, in the bottom sediment layer of lakes, streams, and coastal waters, in the intestinal tract of fish and mammals, and in the gills of crabs and shellfish. The bacteria can form a spore, a protective coating, which helps it to survive in the environment and extreme conditions. The spores don’t generally make people sick. BUT under certain conditions, the spores will grow and make a toxin.

The conditions include:
• a low or no oxygen environment
• low acid (prefers a pH of 4.6-9)
• low sugar
• low salt
• certain temperature ranges (depending on the type of botulism, the survival temperature range is 38˚ to 118˚ F)

The spores are heat resistant and can survive in foods that are not processed correctly. The toxin is odorless and colorless, and often there is no visible sign that a food is contaminated. The one exception would be a can with a swollen lid, a sign that bacterial growth is taking place inside a sealed, oxygen-free environment.

What foods are associated with botulism?
You may have heard about botulism in recent news. There was an outbreak in California that has been linked to canned nacho cheese sauce sold at a gas station. In this case, there was one death, and nine people were hospitalized. Botulism is associated with improperly home-canned or fermented produce, canned soups, baby food in pouches, lobster, tuna fish, smoked and salted fish, chopped garlic in oil, baked potatoes wrapped in foil, and jarred sauces.

What are the symptoms?
Symptoms appear 18 to 36 hours after eating the contaminated food. The toxin produced by the bacteria is absorbed into the digestive tract and then spreads throughout the central nervous system. Symptoms include double vision, drooping eyelids, difficulty swallowing, slurred speech, and paralysis, starting in the upper body and moving downwards. That can then lead to paralysis of the muscles used for breathing…and, obviously, if those aren’t working, you can die. The good news is that there is a low incidence rate for botulism — about twenty cases a year, according to the CDC. But the bad news is that there is a high mortality rate of five to 10 percent, if it is not treated immediately and properly. It takes ingesting only an extremely small amount of the toxin to get sick.

Can it be prevented?
Yes, all foodborne illnesses can be prevented, including botulism. This is the point of the variance and HACCP plan for processes like sous vide and vacuum packaging, where the oxygen is removed from the food packaging. Any time a TCS food is packaged using a reduced oxygen method, the operator must control for the growth of botulism and other bacteria, like listeria, that grow well in the absence of oxygen. Did you know that many common foodborne bacteria can grow with, or without, the presence of oxygen? Some, like botulism, just prefer the oxygen-free environment. There are specific time and temperature protocols that must be followed, as well as proper personal hygiene, cleaning and sanitizing, and product labeling and handling. Cans with swollen lids should be disposed of properly. NEVER open them, as the botulism spores can be released with force, causing problems.
And prevention is what food safety is all about. Following proper procedures, monitoring and documenting each critical control point carefully, along with practicing proper cleaning and sanitizing and personal hygiene are all critical elements to the safety of your guests. Training your staff is key. Only staff members who have been properly trained should be involved with reduced oxygen packaging procedures. Another way to prevent contamination is to have a designated area in the kitchen where you will only be vacuum packing your foods. Be sure that all equipment used has been NSF approved; the health department will want information sheets on each piece of equipment used.
And to close out the botulism discussion, here is an interesting fact: are you a fan of Botox? Botulism is the paralyzing nerve toxin (used in very diluted amounts) that is in Botox, used to get rid of your wrinkles. It is also used to treat migraines and excessive sweating.

About the Author

Juliet Bodinetz is executive director of Bilingual Hospitality Training Solutions and has over 30 years industry and training experience. She and her team of instructors specialize in food safety, alcohol training and ServSafe training in English or in Spanish and writing HACCP Plans in the Baltimore and Washington D.C. area., or 443-838-7561. For latest food safety tips: Become a fan on Facebook or Twitter: @BHTS

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