September 2009

Bay Valley Foods, LLC, just recalled chunky steak soup sold under the Stater Bros. brand name; the reason given, as can be seen in the USDA-FSIS recall notice, is the company’s concern that the product was "underprocessed" during production.  Bay Valley should be commended for taking the necessary unilateral step of recalling its "underprocessed" product; but it’s important for consumers to know that the real concern with low-acid, thermally processed foods like this soup being "underprocessed" is botulism. 

Botulism is a nasty bug. It produces a potent neuro-toxin that causes paralysis. It has produced some of the most gruesome illnesses, hospitalizations, and deaths of all clients at Marler Clark.

But botulism (i.e. the bacteria from which the toxins are produced) is also extremely prevalent in the environment.  It is a naturally occuring bacteria in the earth; in fact, if you were to go outside and pick up a handful of dirt from your backyard garden, you’d likely be picking up a bunch of botulism spores as well.  These are not harmful unless they are allowed to incubate at the right temperature for the right period of time, but they are there nonetheless.

To bring me back to the point with respect to the Stater Bros soup recall, the real risk here is that botulism spores in the low-acid, hermetically sealed soup containers might germinate and begin to produce the harmful botulism toxins.  The soup contains lots of vegetables, and lots of the vegetables probably came from dirt that contained lots of botulism spores. 

Thus, Bay Valley Foods/Stater brothers, should be commended for recalling the potentially contaminated (or "underprocessed") soup.  But it is equally important for consumers of this product to know the risks they face.  It’s not that your beef might be a little undercooked, or the carrots a little hard.  It’s botulism.

Bay Valley Foods, LLC, a Pittsburgh, Pa., establishment is recalling approximately 6,490 pounds of a chunky grilled steak with vegetables canned soup product due to possible underprocessing, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced today.

The following product is subject to recall: [View Label]

  • 18.6 – oz. metal cans of Stater Bros. brand, "CHUNKY GRILLED SIRLOIN STEAK WITH VEGETABLES" Ready to Serve Soup. The front of each label bears the USDA mark of inspection. Additionally, the "Use By/Sell By" date "11/10/10," and the establishment number, "EST. 108," are printed on the top of each can. Each case contains a total of twelve (12) cans and may be identified by the code "70411108."

The canned soup products were produced on November 10, 2008 and were distributed to retail establishments in California. If available, the retail distribution list(s) will be posted on the FSIS website at


Fortunately for us humans, animals have suffered the most this summer from the botulism bacteria.  Botulism, which produces a potent neurotoxin that causes paralysis and, frequently, death, is a health scourge to all, but appears to have killed an inordinate number of marine mammals and fish this summer.  Among the grisly stories produced by a quick google search are an unfortunate fresh-water sturgeon and lots of equally unfortunate ducks and geese.

Lest we be lulled into a false sense of security, however, botulism is every bit as prevalent in our human environments as it ever was, and it remains a virtually unparalleled threat to public health–at least as judged by the devastating, brutal nature of the illnesses that it causes.  We have represented victims of many major botulism outbreaks, including the Castleberry Chili sauce outbreak, and the Bolthouse Farms carrot juice outbreak, and the horrific nature of the illnesses that these people suffered is testament to the signficant threat that botulism is, and remains. 

Here’s a botulism primer:

Botulism is a rare but serious paralytic illness caused by a nerve toxin that is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Clostridium botulinum is the name of a group of bacteria commonly found in soil. It is an anaerobic, gram-positive, spore-forming rod that produces a potent neurotoxin. These rod-shaped organisms are intolerant of oxygen. The bacteria form spores, which allow them to survive in a dormant state until exposed to conditions that can support their growth. The organism and its spores are widely distributed in nature. They occur in both cultivated and forest soils, bottom sediments of streams, lakes, and coastal waters, in the intestinal tracts of fish and mammals, and in the gills and viscera of crabs and other shellfish.
Four types of botulism are recognized: foodborne, infant, wound, and a form of botulism whose classification is as yet undetermined. Foodborne botulism is the name of the disease (actually a foodborne intoxication) caused by the consumption of foods containing the neurotoxin produced by C. botulinum.

In the United States an average of 110 cases of botulism are reported each year. Of these, approximately 25% are foodborne, 72% are infant botulism, and the rest are wound botulism. Outbreaks of foodborne botulism involving two or more persons occur most years and are usually caused by eating contaminated home-canned foods. The number of cases of foodborne and infant botulism has changed little in recent years, but wound botulism has increased because of the use of black-tar heroin, especially in California.

Foodborne botulism (as distinct from wound botulism and infant botulism) is a severe type of food poisoning caused by the ingestion of foods containing the potent neurotoxin formed during growth of the organism. The toxin is heat labile and can be destroyed if heated at 80°C for 10 minutes or longer. The incidence of the disease is low, but the disease is of considerable concern because of its high mortality rate if not treated immediately and properly. Most of the 10 to 30 outbreaks that are reported annually in the United States are associated with inadequately processed, home-canned foods, but occasionally commercially produced foods have been involved in outbreaks. Sausages, meat products, canned vegetables and seafood products have been the most frequent vehicles for human botulism.