Sometimes we can take lessons from the strangest places. For people who are interested in survivalism, preparedness and homesteading, there is a lot that we can learn from botulism.
You’ve heard of it, I’m sure, and while I’m certainly not advocating that any of us act like botulism, we can take just a moment to admire its … well, its effectiveness at doing what it needs to do.
Botulism is incredibly effective
Okay, what it is effective at doing is killing, but this bacteria is like Hannibal Lector in The Silence of the Lambs.
It takes a very tiny amount of botulism to kill a very large number of people. A teaspoon of it would wipe out hundreds of thousands of people
It is, in fact, one of the most toxic substances on earth. The fatality rate is 65% (so perhaps not as good as Hannibal?) – that means most people who get it die.
Symptoms are double vision, inability to swallow, speech difficulty and progressive respiratory paralysis.
The onset is 12-36 hours but sometimes longer, and symptoms last 3-6 days.
That’s a really awful way to die.
Our vet, for example, has a large German Shepherd dog. Trixie’s a beautiful dog, but we were warned “Call first. Don’t ever go there before calling. Trixie doesn’t like surprise visitors.” After I came face to face with the beautiful Trixie, I agreed that she is a very effective form of security.
Botulism is a survivor
Unlike many of the molds and bacteria that make food spoil, botulism is a strict anaerobe. It is like another lovely bacteria known as gangrene in this sense. Both of these stealthy, hardy survivors only grow in the absence of oxygen. Botulism absolutely loves the moist, airless environment provided by a sealed, airtight jar of beans or meat.
Most of us would look at a jar of meat and think “Nothing can live in that. It was heat-treated and sealed tight.” Botulism can, though. Most of the people who read this are survivors, but how do you compare to botulism?
Botulism is a master of stealth
There is NO odor, NO visual indicator, NO way to identify botulism outside of a laboratory. Infected, deadly jars of food will look completely normal. Botulism practices stealth in another way. It doesn’t need to grow constantly. If conditions are not suitable for growth, botulism forms durable spores that are found practically everywhere. Botulism spores are found on raw produce, tools, dirty fingers or anything that has come into contact with dirt.
The amazing thing is that everyone knows about botulism. We know where it is, where it grows, and how to kill it. And still, it manages to hide in plain sight.
Botulism does not give up easily
It is very heat resistant and very hard to kill.
The bacteria itself can be killed with short exposure to boiling water (212F at sea level). However, this does not kill botulism spores.
The only effective way that has been found to kill botulism spores is to bring the food or container to temperatures of 240F (at sea level) for enough time to allow all the food to come completely to that temperature.
Botulism spores can be killed at boiling water temperatures, but it requires a minimum of 6 hours. Even the most devoted boiling water bath canner is not going to boil their meat or vegetables for 6 hours.
Although it seems surprising, food heated in jars in the oven does not reach the 240F necessary to destroy botulism spores. The temperature on the oven regulator is not the same temperature as inside the jar of food.
If a mold gets into wet jarred high-acid food and is not destroyed, it can consume the natural acids in the food and raise the pH.
This makes a normally high-acid food become low-acid.
Why does that matter?
Well, botulism bacteria cannot grow in high-acid foods, but if the pH changes, the game changes. Botulism spores then take over, and turn this into a whole new level of nastiness.
For this reason, all high-acid foods, even if they’ve been traditionally “open kettle canned” should be processed in a boiling water bath.
There was a time when most people felt a small amount of mold in food was harmless.
Unfortunately, this led to food poisoning and problems that could have been prevented.
Mycotoxins, which survive for a long time and are not destroyed by cooking, produce roots that penetrate deeply into food. Any home-canned food showing signs of mold should be disposed of in a way to prevent anyone (including animals) from eating it.
Even when you’re the toughest, most stealthy, most effective dude in the region, it makes sense to cooperate at times. In this case, relatively harmless molds hook up with deadly botulism to drastically increase the effectiveness of both.
Botulism has been around the block
Clostridium botulinum is one of the oldest life forms on Earth, dating back to before our planet had abundant oxygen. It has experience and has fine-tuned its approach over the years until it is utterly amazing at what it does.
Oh, yes, botulism knows what it’s doing.
The reason ALL responsible teachers (and oh, yes, bloggers are teachers!) and books on food preservation, food storage and home canning constantly go on and on and on and on and on about the need for proper technique and the avoidance of spoilage is simple – we do not want you to die.
I refuse to hand people a loaded gun and tell them “It’s okay, there’s just one bullet in it, but I KNOW you won’t get that one. In your head.”
This, then, is why I constantly repeat that low acid foods (meat, vegetables and some fruit) MUST be pressure canned, and why high acid foods (pickles, jams and jellies, most fruit) MUST be boiling water bath canned.
I recognize fully that many people have canned unsafely and lived.
However, botulism poisoning does happen, and I refuse to have it on my conscience that someone DIED because I said they should go ahead and can meat (or green beans or corn) in boiling water for a few hours, even though I know very well that that is far less than is necessary to kill botulism spores.
Can we all take a moment and agree that not dying is good?