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Potato Soup and Botulism: A Cautionary Tale

There’s good reason the label says “keep refrigerated.” And also good reason not to taste food to see if it’s gone bad.

Two people found that out the hard way, and became very sick with botulism after tasting potato soup left unrefrigerated for weeks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relates in its current Weekly Morbidity and Mortality Report.

In “Notes from the Field,” the CDC tells the cautionary tale of a 29-year-old Ohio resident, who sampled potato soup on Jan. 18 from a “bulging plastic container, noted a bad taste” and discarded the rest.

The soup had been purchased on Dec. 7, 2010 from the refrigerated case at a local grocer, then remained unrefrigerated at home for 42 days, the CDC said.

After 5 days of progressively worsening dizziness, blurred vision, and difficulty swallowing and breathing, the man was hospitalized Jan. 28 and required mechanical ventilation and botulism antitoxin. He remained hospitalized for 57 days and then was moved to a rehabilitation facility because of residual weakness.

On April 3, a 41-year-old Georgia woman tasted potato soup that had been purchased from a local grocery store, the CDC said in its second story. The woman thought the soup tasted sour and threw it away.

Her soup, in a plastic container labeled “keep refrigerated,” had been purchased on March 16 and left unrefrigerated for 18 days.

After four days of dizziness and trouble swallowing, the woman developed respiratory distress, required mechanical ventilation and was given botulism antitoxin. She was hospitalized for 16 days before being transferred to a rehab facility.

These two cases weren’t the first in which improper food storage resulted in botulism. Although botulism is often associated with home canning problems, the CDC said that since 1975, 19 U.S. botulism cases have been linked to commercially produced, chilled foods, implying that in at least some of these cases, consumer carelessness or ignorance was responsible for life-threatening illness.

Labels advising refrigeration might be ignored or not noticed, the CDC noted, and do not warn about the danger of consuming unrefrigerated food. 

The health authority also observed that heating food to a temperature of 185°F (85°C) for 5 minutes inactivates the paralyzing toxin produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria, so proper preparation also is an important safeguard.

© Food Safety News
  • Doc Mudd

    Sounds like just the sort of wonderful surprise one might bring home when buying improperly labeled food of dubious home manufacture.
    You know the deal; some entrepreneurial cottage industry rocket scientist brews up a big ol’ batch of all-natural gumbo-like swill on Saturday evening, packs it in the home kitchen, scimps on the refrigeration (’cause that costs money, you know, and it’s a pain in the arse, besides), carts the little ticking time bombs from flea market to carnival to farmers market in the trunk of the Volvo all the next week, charmingly and cheerfully overcharges you for them, falls back upon caveat emptor when you’re kids are on respirators.
    Back to the fiefdom! Caveat emptor, baby, caveat emptor!!

  • JustTheFacts

    FYI — There’s no mention of home manufacturing in these stories — just commercially produced, chilled foods involving consumer carelessness. Another Muddian mind-leap….

  • Doc Mudd

    “…consumer carelessness…”
    Exactly, Gilman, that’s the principle of caveat emptor distilled to its very essence, exactly!
    Eureka – your first ever mention of “consumer” (however derogatory your context) is a breakthrough, none the less. I had become convinced those keys were missing from your NOFA-certified policy-spinning keyboard, old boy.

  • Steve

    Who’s spinning what, Muddd??
    But now that you mention it (and attribute to me) — caveat emptor actually is literally “let the buyer beware” ie. the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality of goods before they are purchased — (such as antibiotic-resistant CAFO meats, chicken manure fed beef, pesticide-laden veggies, human manure/sludge-raised produce and GMO-created foods etc. etc. — because they’re all unlabeled/hidden in the marketplace)…
    However, caveat emptor is NOT as in this example where the consumer is so careless AFTER the purchase as not to refrigerate the chilled commercial product labeled “keep refrigerated” they bought and then kept around unrefrigerated for 18 days… now That’s plain consumer carelessness, or worse….