Safe Preserving: Home Canning Nearly Fatal

Erica Brewster (Oneida County) alerted me to a story from the Seattle, WA area about a man who, last summer, nearly died from consuming improperly home canned food.

According to the article, On the Friday before Mother’s Day in 2013, Mike O’Connell was looking forward to spending the weekend with his wife at their home in the Seattle area. But he woke that morning with the strangest affliction: double vision.

Cells and spores of C. botulinum. Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control.

Cells and spores of C. botulinum. Image courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control.

“There were two of everything and I had an awful time just shaving and getting ready for work,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell, 67, is chief counsel to Washington’s Legislative Ethics Board. He suspected the double vision was related to some laser eye surgery he had had. He managed to make it into work, but soon went home. That evening, he experienced more strange symptoms. “My legs felt rubbery,” he said. The next morning, he felt even worse. He was bumping into walls.

Mr. O’Connell went to the hospital where tests were run for stoke. But test results revealed there was no evidence of stroke, so he was released.

“I didn’t know enough to bring up the fact that I had eaten canned meat,” said O’Connell. The night before O’Connell woke up with double vision, he had eaten some elk meat he had canned the week before. “Borrowed a pressure cooker, used an old family recipe for canning,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell’s mother had canned everything when he was a kid. He wanted to recapture a bit of his childhood. But things started going wrong from the start.  “I had way too much meat to deal with,” said O’Connell. The pressure cooker was too small. O’Connell had already browned the meat in a cast iron pan. So he decided to shortcut the process. Once the jars sealed airtight he would take them out of the pressure cooker and start a new batch.

The next day, he heard a pop in the pantry. “Which I remember as a child was the signal for you’ve lost the seal,” said O’Connell.

O’Connell found the jar with the popped seal, put it in the fridge and ate it the next day. He says it was delicious. The following week he heard another lid pop. Just as he had before, O’Connell found the jar and stuck it in the fridge. And a few days later he ate it for supper. “This time, it didn’t work out,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell had an upset stomach in the night, but he didn’t connect it to having eaten the meat. He says growing up, he didn’t know anyone who got food poisoning from home canned foods.  The next morning O’Connell started seeing double.

At the hospital, once doctors ruled out a stroke, O’Connell was sent home. But he was back in the hospital a few hours later. Now he was having difficulty swallowing. As the day progressed, his symptoms worsened. He was unable to open his eyes and his breathing was getting shallow.  Fortunately, O’Connell’s daughter read about botulism poisoning and realized that the symptoms were exactly what her father was experiencing. Once doctors realized the connection between the symptoms and botulism poisoning, a dose of anti-toxin was ordered from the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, GA and, once that was administered, the  long road to recovery began.

What is botulism? Botulism is a rare but serious paralytic illness caused by a nerve toxin that is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum.

What are the symptoms of botulism poisoning? The classic symptoms of botulism include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness. Infants with botulism appear lethargic, feed poorly, are constipated, and have a weak cry and poor muscle tone. These are all symptoms of the muscle paralysis caused by the bacterial toxin. If untreated, these symptoms may progress to cause paralysis of the respiratory muscles, arms, legs, and trunk. In foodborne botulism, symptoms generally begin 18 to 36 hours after eating a contaminated food, but they can occur as early as 6 hours or as late as 10 days.

Are there complications from botulism? Botulism can result in death due to respiratory failure. A patient with severe botulism may require a breathing machine as well as intensive medical and nursing care for several months, and some patients die from infections or other problems related to remaining paralyzed for weeks or months. Patients who survive an episode of botulism poisoning may have fatigue and shortness of breath for year,s and long-term therapy may be needed to aid recovery.

What’s the best way to prevent foodborne botulism? Use up-to-date, tested recipes for all home canning. A great source of recipes is the National Center for Home Food Preservation at the University of Georgia. Safe preserving! Barb