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Rare but dangerous: food poisoning from Clostridium botulinum

25/2001, 10.09.2001

New brochure from BgVV with consumer tips helps to avoid illness

Only recently there was a headline in the media: Clostridium botulinum germs had been detected in infant formula from Ireland. The health authorities warned against the consumption of these products because the pathogens can trigger severe muscular paralysis. Cases of food poisoning from Clostridium botulinum are relatively rare in Germany. Because of the high mortality rate botulism is still, however, a serious health and food hygiene problem. Clostridium botulinum germs occur around the world. They only constitute a risk when they multiply in foods and form toxins. In what foods can we expect to find Clostridia and what can we do to prevent infections? These questions are answered in a new brochure of the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine.

The disease caused by the toxin, Clostridium botulinum, is called botulism, after the word "botulus", the Latin word for sausage. Depending on the level of toxin intake, the botulism symptoms occurring after 12 to 36 hours are nausea, diarrhoea or constipation and neurological symptoms. The rapidly progressing respiratory paralysis is one of the most feared sequellae. Botulism patients must consult a doctor immediately and require intensive care. Clostridium botulinum loves an oxygen-free environment. In vacuum-packed foods like smoked fish and sausages, the germ can easily multiply. Since temperatures between 1 - 7oC can prevent multiplication, it is important to store vacuum-packed foods at cool temperatures.

Clostridia don't like temperatures above 100oC either. Anyone who bottles or cans meat or vegetables should thoroughly heat the food twice. Temperatures of over 100oC are not achieved in home bottling or canning. Any germinated spores can, however, be inactivated by being heated a second time.

A special form of botulism is infant botulism mentioned above. It may occur in children in the first year of life - particularly during the first six months. At this age Clostridium botulinum can populate the intestines, germinate there and form toxins. The toxin can eventually lead to the feared paralysis of respiratory muscles and then to death. A well-known source of infant botulism is honey. Cases of infant botulism are fortunately very seldom in Germany. Nevertheless, BgVV recommends on the grounds of precautionary consumer protection that children under the age of one year and in particular infants should not be given honey.

The brochure was prepared with the assistance of the Robert Koch Institute. It is free of charge and can be ordered in writing from the BgVV Press and Public Relations Office or accessed on the website (keyword: Publications/Brochures; German Version only).


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