Editor’s Note: In 1919, canned ripe olives spread an outbreak of deadly Botulism to three states. Nineteen people died, almost half the deaths ever caused by food products commercially canned in California — all killed in one outbreak. The incident remains one of the 10 deadliest outbreaks of foodborne illness in U.S. history. As part of a periodic series on historic outbreaks, Food Safety News recounts the 1919 Botulism outbreak.

A young Dr. Charles Armstrong, fresh from fighting the world influenza epidemic that came with the Great War, was ordered by U.S. Surgeon General Rupert Blue to his home state of Ohio on July 1, 1919 to provide assistance to the state health officer.

Armstrong, just 33, returned home from war just six weeks before a county club banquet was held for more than 200 people near Canton, Ohio. Fourteen of those attending the banquet became stricken by botulism poisoning and seven of those victims died.

The coincidence of Armstrong’s assignment to help out in Ohio meant he who would go on to worldwide recognition as virologist with his 1934 discovery of the virus he named lymphocytic choriomeningitis (LCM).

For the California olive industry, this meant the botulism outbreak of 1919 was going to be thoroughly and definitely tied around its neck. With a total of 19 botulism deaths in three states — that were conclusively linked to canned California olives — made the outbreak one of the deadliest outbreaks in the U.S.

The California olive industry owed it existence to those first olive trees planted in the mission orchards at San Diego, San Jose, Santa Clara and others before the American Revolution. For 20 years, it had been commercially viable, but the 1919 botulism outbreak was an unmitigated disaster. California olives did not recover for more than a decade.

Other U.S. states — where those mission olive trees would never grow — were the market for California canned ripe olives and now botulism in a can from California made for a pretty sensational story. 

To make matters worse, California olive growers were not helped by the fact that, after 1919, the botulism outbreaks linked to olives did not really end until 1924.

The 1919 outbreak left dead in three states: Ohio (7), Montana (5), and Michigan (7).

It is Ohio that always gets the most attention, however, because of the Armstrong’s investigation and the unusual circumstances he found at the country club. He found that at the country club event attended, which was attended by more than 200 people, the botulism was all contained to people who sat at one table, the chef and two waiters.

“The guests who became ill were all members of a party given by Mrs. I.W.G., of Sebring, Ohio, and had been served at a separate table which shall hereafter be designed as the Sebring table,” Armstrong wrote. “The two waiters who attended this table and the chef were also affected.”

Armstrong reported the banquet menu included: cantaloupe, turkey, turkey stuffing, tomatoes and mayonnaise, crackers, scalloped corn and pimentos, browned potatoes, green olives, celery and pickles, rolls, butter, ice cream cake, water and coffee.

But he found the Sebring table did not get the green olives, celery, and pickles. Instead, Mrs. I.W.G. provided ripe olives, chocolate candy, Newport creams and candied almonds.

In the Dec. 19, 1919 edition of Public Health Reports, Armstrong includes the seating chart for the Sebring table that also includes the location of the three plates of ripe olives. Five of those in proximity to the olive servings died including Mrs. I.W.G.

Botulism also killed the chef and a waiter.

By the time his investigation got underway, six of the cases “had terminated fatally,” according to Armstrong.  While no illnesses occurred among those at other tables, Armstrong interviewed 15 of those guests and he also conducted a full blown epidemiological study to exclude all the items on the menu.

Of the 14 people who were ill, all ate olives. “When the dead are considered, it is found in a general way that those who died first who ate the most olives,” Armstrong said.

Among those who were recovering, he said those who ate the least suffered were less severe cases. Those who survived reported the olives did not taste right. Asked to describe it, they said things like the olives “bit the tongue” and “stuck to the tongue” or just said they were “not fit to eat.”

Armstrong found the ripe olives came from a vacuum-sealed jar and concluded, “something had occurred to destroy the vacuum in the jar, for, in opening it, the lid is said to have come off easily without having been punctured and without the use of instruments.”  The lid was discarded, but the recovered glass jar  “was not cracked or defective in any way.”

One of the waiters did not think the olives tasted right, and near the end of the banquet, he took them to the chef to get another opinion. The chef ate two, unwashed, and was among those who died. One of the two waiters for the Sebring table and a guest, both of whom survived credited the amount of whiskey they drank that evening as possibility saving their lives.

Pushing on, the investigation found the source of the contaminated olives to be the Ehmann Olive Company, formed in 1898 by Mrs. Freda Ehmann.  She started California’s commercial olive industry and credited with establishing the modern California ripe olive industry.

She arrived in California as a widow in the 1890’s when olive planting was peaking. She lost her first investment in a ranch called Olive Hill Grove and then turned her attention to perfecting a recipe for pickled olives and selling it to grocers.

By 1900, Ehmann Olive Company was running 90 vats at a large processing plant in Oroville, CA.

Dr. Judith Taylor, who wrote the book “The Olive in California,” interviewed Freda Ehmann’s grand-daughter who said her grandmother never could come to terms about the company’s role in the 1919 outbreak.

USDA’s Bureau of Chemistry did a study of Ehmann’s glass and metal containers in 1920, finding both could look normal but still contain pathogenic organisms, including Clostridium botulinus.

California canned foods have been the source of about 40 deaths in other states, according to the California Department of Public Health.  The California State Board of Health responded to the 1919 outbreak with emergency regulation of olive production on Aug. 7, 1920, requiring sanitation through the processing facility and mandating a thermal process.

Heat treatment for olives after cans or jars are sealed to sterilize contents completely was required. Immersion in water at 240 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 minutes was the rule.

California canned olives continued to poison people in some scattered cases.

The emergency regulations under the California Pure Foods Act and limited staff to enforce them were not enough.  

California responded with the Cannery Inspection Act of 1925.  Both the State Board of Health and the National Canners’ Association supported it, which by then even favored federal inspection.

California’s Food and Drug Branch today inspects 200 licensed canners where regulated products are packed. It’s primary goal remains preventing foodborne botulism. Tests for retort operators to determine qualifications to operate sterilization equipment are critical.

Dr. Armstrong continued to serve in the uniformed U.S. Public Health Service until 1950, ending up as Chief of the Division of Infectious Disease. In Warm
Springs, GA, a sculpture of his likeness is found in the Polio Hall of Fame.  He is recognized for being the first to adapt and transmit the human strain of poliovirus to small rodents from monkeys, a key step in the development of vaccines.

As for Mrs. I.W.G., her death by Botulism was probably known to her friends and neighbors in Sebring at the time, but she remains known 87 years later only by those initials assigned to her by Dr. Armstrong.