By Mark Heinz, Outdoors Reporter
During her long career in food service, Becce Ford is thankful that she never saw a single case of botulism.
But given its horrific effects, she was always mindful of the foodborne neuro toxin that can shut down the entire body.
“That’s the biggest reason why we just didn’t use anything from dented cans,” Ford told Cowboy State Daily. “It wasn’t because of the potential loss of flavor or anything like that. It was because of the botulism.”
Ford lives in Laramie and in 2020 retired as associate director of Dining Services at the University of Wyoming. She continues to teach food safety classes at UW.
Outdoorsman Completely Paralyzed
Hans Russell, 55, a well-known and previously robust and healthy Jackson outdoorsman, has for weeks lay completely paralyzed in a Salt Lake City hospital, the Jackson Hole News & Guide reports.
It’s thought his devastating illness resulted from a botulism infection that possibly came from a can of soup that wasn’t properly refrigerated.
Botulism can sometimes be fatal. And even those who survive can take months, or even years, to recover, said Justin Latham, manager of consumer health services with the Wyoming office of the USDA.
The paralyzing toxin results from bacterial growth. It can be tenacious and hard to detect in tainted food sources, he said.
“It’s one of those really hardy, spore-forming bacteria. And it grows in anerobic environments,” he said.
Ford agreed that botulism can be a formidable foe.
“The bacteria itself won’t survive boiling,” she said. “But the hardened spores will. And if they get into a food source and the conditions are right for it to grow, it will start growing again.”
Not Sure How Victim Got It
Latham and Ford said they didn’t know enough details of Russell’s case to speculate about when and where things might have gone wrong with the soup he ate. Improper canning methods, damage to packaging or improper food storage and preparation can lead to botulism.
They also weren’t aware of any other current or recent cases in Wyoming.
When it comes risk factors, canned goods that aren’t particularly acidic, such as vegetables, can be particularly susceptible to botulism, Ford and Latham said.
The inert spores themselves aren’t dangerous to humans, Latham added.
But that’s why it’s so important to check for dents, he said. Dents in cans can “break the hermetic seal,” thereby creating the conditions under which the spores will sprout into toxin-producing bacteria.
Other conditions to watch out for might be something such as “garlic covered in olive oil,” allowed to sit to long in warm temperatures, Latham said. That’s because the olive oil can create the “low oxygen” conditions on the garlic that would allow the bacteria to grow.
And poorly sealed fish or freeze-dried proteins such as eggs or meat might also be susceptible to botulism, he said.
Watch Those Green Beans
Home canning in particular must be done properly, Latham and Ford said, and green beans are one food in particular that seem to cause cases of home-canning botulism.
“It’s probably because the beans come from dirt,” Ford said, “and dirt can have the spores in it.”
In addition to making sure cans are properly sealed, home canners should add some sort of acid, such as citric acid, to the process, Latham said. Citric acid is highly effective at destroying the bacteria.
Some foods, such as tomato sauces, already have high acid content.
Ford said she’s a home canner and never takes chances, even with tomato sauces.
“Tomatoes don’t have as much acid as people think they do,” she said. “I always add some lemon juice even to my tomato sauces.”
People should be cautious when buying or trading home-canned goods, Latham said. Ask if the canner takes precautionary steps such as pre-boiling goods and adding citric acid.
Ford said large operations such as UW dining services don’t buy or use home-canned goods.
“We couldn’t. It wasn’t allowed,” she said. “We couldn’t buy home-canned, because we weren’t the end user. I was responsible for overseeing the cooking and serving of food to numerous other people.”
Fund For Russell
A GoFundMe effort is underway for Russell, with donations so far at about $13,200 of a $250,000 goal.
Zina Horman, who set up the online fundraiser, reports that Russell remains mentally alert, but has very little control of his paralyzed body.
“Hans is currently mentally completely there and can understand what is going on, but is only able to wiggle toes and squeeze fingers,” she wrote. “This is his only way to communicate with us.
“His lungs are still in a state of paralysis so he is on a ventilator among many other machines to keep him going. It is likely that he will make a full recovery but will take months of intensive treatment (we are already starting to see his mobility improving).”
She adds that the medical care is extensive and “very expensive.”