Protect Your Family From Botulism

jars of food 


Back to Nutrition and Wellness

By Carol Church, Writer, Family Album

Reviewed by Amarat Simonne, PhD, Department of Family, Youth, and Community Sciences, University of Florida

What do you know about botulism? Personally, just hearing the word makes me feel a bit nervous. Recently, an outbreak of foodborne botulism after a church potluck has many us thinking about this severe illness. At least 21 people have been hospitalized, and tragically, one has died. Home-canned potatoes are suspected to have been the source.

Although botulism is significantly less common than other foodborne illnesses (about 100 cases per year in the US), it can be extremely serious. The death rate is about 3 to 5%. Most cases in the US today occur in babies (infant botulism).

What is Botulism?

Botulism comes from the C. botulinum bacteria, which occurs naturally in soil, in stream, lake, and ocean sediments, and in fish, shellfish, and mammals. This bacteria produces neurotoxins—substances that harms nerve tissue in living beings.

What Causes Botulism?

Botulism toxins may be present in food that has not been properly cooked, processed, handled, or stored, and is especially common in low-acid home-canned foods, such as vegetables, seafood, and meat. Homemade, unrefrigerated garlic in oil and herbs in oil, as well as foil-wrapped baked potatoes that have been left at room temperature, are also known sources. However, other foods can cause foodborne botulism, too.

Commercially processed juices and canned goods have sometimes been associated with botulism as well. And babies under the age of 1 year can get infant botulism from ingesting bacterial spores in honey. (It is also possible to contract wound botulism and intestinal botulism.)

What Are the Symptoms?

People who have eaten food contaminated with the botulism toxin usually develop symptoms about 8-36 hours later. Symptoms of botulism include the nausea, stomach cramps, and vomiting typical of foodborne illness or “food poisoning.” In addition, the botulism toxin can cause muscle weakness, muscle paralysis, double vision, trouble swallowing, slurred speech, dry mouth, and respiratory problems. Respiratory failure is among the most serious consequences of infection. Today, botulism cases can be treated with an antitoxin, but the symptoms must be recognized as botulism first. Botulism is not contagious and does not cause fever.


How can you avoid this dangerous toxin? Experts have some advice. Always wash foods well before canning them, and follow current, up-to-date canning recommendations and recipes to the letter! Oils containing garlic or herbs must be kept refrigerated and should be discarded after two to three days. And if you bake potatoes in tinfoil, keep them hot (>135°F) until you serve them or refrigerate them. Follow good food handling practices at all times, keeping foods out of temperature “danger zones.” Discard any canned goods (home canned or commercial) that are swollen, leaking, bulging or damaged (including lids). And never feed honey or corn syrup to a baby under one year!

Botulism is a frightening illness, but fortunately, it is rare. You can protect yourself and your family against this toxin by following safe food handling and canning practices.

(Photo credit: Under Pressure by Sharon Drummond. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Cropped.)

Further Reading:

Home Canning and Botulism–from the CDC

Preventing Foodborne Illness: Clostridium botulinum–from UF-IFAS

Canning Food–from UF-IFAS


Botulism–from Colorado State University


CDC. (2014). Botulism. Retrieved from

Chan-Tack, K., et al. (2015), Botulism. Retrieved from

Food Safety News. (2015). Home-canned potatoes served at potluck probably caused botulism outbreak. Retrieved from

Kendall, P. (2012). Botulism. Retrieved from

MedLine Plus. (2013). Botulism. Retrieved from

Schneider, K. R., Silverberg, R., Chang, A., & Schneider, R. M. G. (2014). Preventing foodborne illness: Clostridium botulinum. Retrieved from