Botulism Risk May Hide In Homemade Holiday Gift Baskets

Stories of homemade food gifts around the holidays are rife with tales of unwanted nonfood objects making their way into gifts—a used Band-Aid and cat hair were noted—but so, too, are stories about <"">foodborne illnesses, says MSNBC.

As we continue wading through the economic downturn, gifts made in the kitchen are increasing, according to Jarden Home Brands—it manufacturers Ball and Kerr jars—and sales of canning products such as pectin and jars have been on an upswing, said MSNBC. Last year, sales of these products increased by 28 percent and the increase from 2008 to 2009 was 50 percent, added MSNBC. According to MSNBC, extension programs and websites—MSNBC mentioned the National Center for Home Food Preservation—have also seen significant increases in canning advice requests, specifically from first-time canners.

Because of the complexity surrounding canning and because not everyone who cans understands the nuances of this food process, people do become ill. Last year, three people required hospitalization for botulism after eating green beans that were inappropriately canned at home, said MSNBC. Part of the problem is people using recipes that do not come from trusted sources and people changing recipes in attempts to make them unique or different from recipes that are meant to work with this type of food preservation process.

Botulism is a serious and potentially fatal form of food poisoning that can cause life-threatening illness or death. Symptoms can include: General weakness, dizziness, double or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech and trouble with speaking or swallowing, and dry mouth. Difficulty in breathing; weakness of other muscles—for instance, muscle weakness that starts at the shoulders and moves progressively down the body—abdominal distension, and constipation may also be common symptoms. Botulism poisoning can cause paralysis of breathing muscles, which can lead to death without treatment and respiratory ventilation in about eight percent of cases.

MSNBC pointed out that home canned meats have landed people in the hospital and notes that some fish; meat; and chili, soup, and stew; as well as low-acid foods such as green beans, carrots, pesto, chocolate sauce, and vegetable salsa, can present challenges for novice canners, according to Elizabeth Andress, an extension food safety expert and project director at the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

MSNBC explained that botulinum spores, which can be found on fresh food, are harmless when exposed to air; however, the low oxygen environment produced in canning creates a perfect situation for spores to germinate and produce the botulism toxin. High acid foods with lemon juice, citric acid, or vinegar, are appropriately canned in a boiling water canner, but low acid foods require a pressure canner for optimum safety. “If you don’t know what you’re doing and you can certain kinds of foods improperly, it can lead to foodborne illness and possibly botulism,” says Andress.

“The bottom line with food is safety,” says Zena Edwards, food safety and nutrition faculty for Washington State University Extension. “If you ask where they got the recipe and they tell you the Ball canning book or the USDA site, that’s pretty reliable,” she says. “But if they say ‘Oh, it’s something we came up with’ or ‘well, it originally came from this place, but we modified it,’ then it’s safer to toss it.”

When home canned goods are received, ask from where the recipe was derived, verify the jar’s vacuum seal when opening the jar, and discard anything that looks suspicious, is a strange color, is not completely covered in liquid, and has mold growing on it.

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