If you are not familiar with Clostridium botulinum, don’t worry, it’s probably because it very rarely occurs in the UK. The organism produces a toxin which interrupts the transmission of nerve impulses to muscles i.e. it paralyses. The mortality rate can vary from 15%-90% depending on type of toxin, dosage, age of patient, speed of diagnosis etc. Therefore, once identified it requires fast and efficient action. When it comes to botulinum poisoning, every second counts. The sooner an outbreak is identified, the sooner those who have consumed the contaminated items can be offered lifesaving treatment.
As mentioned earlier it is very rare in the UK. In fact since 1922 only 52 cases have been reported. 27 cases were from a single outbreak which was caused by contaminated Hazelnut yogurt in 1989. There is a long history for Clostridium Botulinum. In fact we are able to trace it right back to 1793 when it was first researched by a German doctor (and poet) by the name of Justinus Kerner. He had been alerted to an outbreak in Wildbad, Germany where 13 people had become ill, 6 of whom died, after eating a local produce known as “blood sausage”. After further research Kerner discovered 230 similar cases where people had become ill after eating sausages. Of course micro-organisms had yet to be discovered and so after briefly being known as “Kerner disease” it soon was given the name “botulism” after the Latin word “botulus” meaning sausage.
Thankfully, research has developed much further. We now know Clostridium botulinum is a spore producing organism which can be found extensively in soil and mud. It therefore can also be found in animals, especially those that forage around water, and fish. The toxin is thermolabile, which means that it is destroyed by good cooking. However, the spores that the organism creates require much higher temperatures in order to be destroyed. A process such as boiling will not reach the temperatures required.
Due to the high temperature required to kill the organism, canned goods go through heat treatment; to preserve and protect. During heat treatment, canned goods are heated to a temperature of 121°C for a period of time so as to destroy all spores. The reason we focus on canned and also vacuum packed goods is because Clostridium botulinuÂ is an anaerobic organism – it prefers an environment without oxygen. What better place to set up home than in a container filled with food that has had virtually all the air removed? It’s almost like we invited it into our food supply.
Clostridium botulinum is not without its uses however. I’m sure you will have at some point meet someone or have a friend of a friend who has had Botox, maybe you have even had the treatment yourself? Well, Botox is botulinum toxin type A. I did say earlier it caused paralysis! And that is exactly what the desired effect is. It is paralysing the facial muscles so as to reduce wrinkles. Another common beneficial use for botulinum toxin type A (BTX-A) is its use to help treat hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating) and the beneficial effects of BTX-A are also being researched for conditions such as asthma. It has already been approved in the USA by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) for the treatment of chronic migraines.
So though deadly, this micro-organism is proving to be very beneficial with the correct application!