Botulism is a life-threatening paralytic illness caused by neurotoxins produced by an anaerobic, gram-positive, spore-forming bacterium—Clostridium botulinum.
Foodborne botulism is the type that is typically associated with classic botulism symptoms; it is caused by eating foods or ingesting substances that contain botulinum toxin. In foodborne botulism, it is the pre-formed toxin that causes illness, not the bacterium itself. The incidence of foodborne botulism is extremely low, usually fewer than 25 cases per year in the United States. Nonetheless, the extreme risk to public health posed by the toxin requires that “intensive surveillance is maintained for botulism cases in the United States, and every case is treated as a public health emergency.” Botulism poisoning carries a mortality rate of up to 65% when victims are not treated immediately and properly. Medical treatment is supportive (including mechanical ventilation if required), and an antitoxin may be given to bind free toxin and reverse or delay the progression of symptoms, when used early in the course of illness. Most foodborne botulism reported annually in the United States is associated with home-canned foods that have not been safely processed. Occasionally, though, commercially processed foods are implicated in botulism poisoning, including sausages, beef stew, canned vegetables, and seafood products.