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.