What is Botulism
By Alex Brooks |
What is Botulism

What is botulism

Botulism is a rare but serious illness caused by a toxin – or poison - made by a bacterium called Clostridium botulinum which occurs naturally in soil.

There are several kinds of botulism:

  • Foodborne botulism comes from eating foods contaminated with the toxin.
  • Wound botulism happens when a wound infected with the bacteria makes the toxin.
  • Infant botulism happens when a baby consumes the spores of the bacteria from soil or honey. [1]
  • Adult infectious botulism, which is similar to infant botulism and may happen after stomach surgery.
  • Inadvertent following a botox injection [2] 

All forms can be deadly and are medical emergencies.

Symptoms of botulism include double or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness. 


Infant botulism: what parents should know

Infant botulism was only recognised in 1976 [3] though it has probably been in existence for longer. The United States, Argentina, Australia, Canada, Italy, and Japan have reported the largest volume of cases of infant botulism, though researchers suspect the condition may often go undiagnosed and be under-reported.

Eating honey before the age of 12 months can be a risk factor for infant botulism. [4]

Infant botulism signs and symptoms may include:

  • Constipation (first sign)
  • Bad temper
  • Excessive drooling when feeding
  • Eyelids sag
  • Facial expression is flat
  • Lethargy, listlessness
  • Respiratory difficulties
  • Slow or improper reflexes
  • The baby cries weakly
  • The child feels floppy
  • The infant does not gag
  • Unfocused eyes
  • Weak sucking [5]


Prevention strategies of infant botulism include:

  • Avoid giving honey to babies under 12 months of age.
  • Keep newborn babies away from soil until their umbilical stumps have dropped off and the navel has completely healed.
  • Take care when preparing, handling and storing solid foods for babies. [6] 


Food safety and botulism

The bacteria that cause botulism are widely distributed throughout nature. Botulism can be found in soil, water, on plants, and in the intestinal tracts of animals and fish. [7]

Many cases of botulism are preventable.

Foodborne botulism has often been from home-canned foods with low acid content, such as asparagus, green beans and corn and is caused by failure to follow proper canning methods.

However, seemingly unlikely or unusual sources of botulism are found every decade, with the common problem of improper food handling; some examples are chopped garlic in oil, canned cheese sauce, tomatoes, carrot juice, and baked potatoes wrapped in foil. [8]

Botulism has been associated with canned foods and, more recently, with vegetables in oil and some other foods. Throw out all raw or canned food that shows any sign of being spoiled.

When canning or preserving foods at home, pay particular attention to hygiene, cooking time, pressure, temperature, refrigeration and storage. Pressure cooking is the only recommended method for preserving foods such as meat, poultry, seafood and most vegetables.

Make sure you use the correct equipment, properly sterilise containers and always follow the manufacturer’s instructions for your equipment. Use only recipes with tested proportions of ingredients and be sure to follow recommendations for time, pressure and safe preserving methods appropriate to the size of container, style of pack and kind of food being processed.

Don’t taste food from swollen containers or food that is ‘foamy’ or has a bad odour. Don’t rely on smells or ‘blown’ containers alone to signal food contamination – it is not always possible to detect Clostridium botulinum bacterium in this way. When in doubt, throw it out. [9]


Botulism scare in New Zealand affects seven countries

Botulism is extremely rare in New Zealand but food giant Fonterra issued a botulism warning after July 31, 2013, testing revealed some of its whey powder may have been contaminated with clostridium botulinum, a soil-based bacteria. [10]

Botulism cases are usually associated with home canning and preserving, where food was not cooled down quickly enough, rather than contaminated manufacturing processes.

Fonterra and New Zealand authorities have now recalled batches of whey product used to form 870 tonnes of products sold in a variety of markets including Australia, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Thailand and Vietnam. [11]


Connect with Kidspot:


what's new on kidspot