December 2011

Over at Outbreak Database, we have been keeping track of foodborne illness outbreaks – small and large – over the last 12 months.  Here is one of the more interesting Botulism Outbreaks:

Utah State Prison Pruno October 2011 – 12 Ill.  Inmates of a Utah State Prison developed botulism after drinking pruno. Pruno is a drink made from various fruit, potato, bread, water, table scraps, and sugar, which are then fermented to make alcohol. Making pruno in prison is a violation of prison rules. Most illnesses began on October 1. The last illness began on October 3. Health officials planned to test pruno samples to pinpoint the specific source. Three of the twelve who became ill were critically ill.

A story of a young man temporarily paralyzed by the neurotixin produced by Clostridium botulinum: 

In 36 hours he went from being a young healthy college student to complete paralysis and being kept alive by tubes and machines.

A rare illness almost stole Brent Ocker’s life. The U of L graduate says his toughest test was far from the classroom.

Brent Ocker has earned a master’s degree in Sports Administration and at just 26 years old learned lessons most will never know. “A year ago I was on my death bed,” he says. That was September 10, 2010. He says he, “woke up that day felt very dizzy, blurred vision, and I couldn’t walk straight…My lungs were collapsing and I was unable to breathe.”

Ocker says doctors went into a guess-and-check method of diagnosis Like a medical mystery from a television drama. First they thought he had vertigo, then maybe meningitis.

“Botulism was down here, no one was even beginning to contemplate that,” he says. But that was the diagnosis.

Botulism is a neuro-cognitive disorder where bacteria that Ocker ingested started in the brain and attacked the nerve ending that sent messages to his muscles.

“I have paralysis,” he says, “I am essentially trapped in my own body. I can hear but I can’t see or move. It was really frightening.”

Botulism is so rare the federal government guards the antidote. As doctors waited for it to be flown in from Georgia, they told his family the drug is so strong 25 percent of patients die during treatment.

Even though the drug was working, Ocker had to withdraw from U of L because he had two more months in 24-hour rehab facilities learning to live again.

But friends rallied around him, hosting fundraisers to help with his seven-digit medical bills. U of L professor Mary Hums says, “The one thing I remember really well was the first day he came back to school to set up his semester, and that was an emotional meeting. I’ll admit it I cried.”

Ocker says, “I could literally only come to class because I could only be on my feet about 15 to 20 minutes from strength.” But he pushed through: “Absolutely, this is the toughest test.”

He will graduate Friday with University’s Alice Eaves Barns Award, which is given to just one master student each semester who has triumphed in the face of adversity.

And what has he learned? “The power that people have to love.”

The Food Safety Authority of Ireland announced the withdrawal of all products produced by Bio Gaudiano, the Italian company that manufactured and distributed botulism-tainted olives that have sickened several people, claiming the life of a woman from Helsinki, Finland.  Some of the recalled olives were distributed to companies in the United States, including to distributors in Massachussetts and United Natural Foods, who sent the FoodMatch Inc., Divina Stuffed Olives to many different states.

The withdrawal of Bio Gaudiano’s entire product line is an expansion of an earlier recall of Bio Gaudiano’s almond stuffed olives.  Foodborne botulism often occurs due to improper canning practices–i.e. failure to bring the product to a temperature sufficient to kill, or inactivate, the botulism bacteria–with low acid content foods, such as asparagus, green beans, beets and corn.  When the bacteria are not killed, under the right conditions the still-viable bacteria can germinate and produce the dangerous toxins that cause cases of botulism. 

It is likely that the investigation into Bio Gaudiano’s botulism outbreak and recall revealed that the companies practices, generally, were insufficient to prove that botulism bacteria had been killed during canning or bottling, resulting in the withdrawal of the company’s entire line of products.