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“A manufacturing error resulted in excess water in the product, which under certain circumstances could support the growth of Clostridium botulinum and pose a health risk to consumers, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency said in its updated food recall warning.
The illness is uncommon. There are fewer than seven cases per year across Canada. No deaths from botulism have been reported in Canada in the last five years, a spokeswoman for the Public Health Agency of Canada said.
“Depending on the amount of toxin you take, that nerve action, the paralysis can spread from your head downwards,” Sider said.
The affected person might have double vision, trouble speaking or swallowing, Sider said.
If caught early, there’s an antitoxin that can be injected into the patient that binds to the toxin and prevents paralysis, Sider said. If the person becomes paralyzed, they need to be in an ICU with respiratory support.
“Clostridium spores are notorious for being long-lived,” said McMaster microbiologist Herb Schellhorn in Hamilton.
The organism grows in the absence of oxygen, or what scientists call an anaerobic environment.
If the water content is too high, if the food isn’t acidic enough, the environment is anaerobic and the C. botulinum bacteria have a sugar to feed on, then they can produce spores that grow, germinate and produce toxins, Sider said.
Infants are particularly vulnerable because the microbes in their gut aren’t developed enough to outcompete C. botulinum when it’s introduced, Schellhorn said.
For the same reason, infants under a year old shouldn’t eat honey. Since their gut is underdeveloped, infants are susceptible to the bacterial spores that are sometimes found in honey, Holley said.
The bacteria can also take hold in adults with anatomical abnormalities in their gastrointestinal tract, such as after bowel surgery, Sider said.
C. botulinum spores are heat resistant and require high heat treatment, preferably with pressure, to reduce growth.
Companies often use industrial pressure cookers to heat their products beyond boiling temperatures at high pressure for about 20 minutes.
The question in this latest recall of baby food is how the contamination occurred. Once that is identified, it should be publicized to encourage continued confidence in our food supply, Schellhorn suggested.
In the classic case of a bulging can, the product shouldn’t be consumed.