Recently I helped dispose of years’ worth of food storage from an old home we were preparing to move into. As I went through each and every can of food, I carefully checked their expiration dates and looked for any signs of dangerous spoilage. Canned food, as well as other items processed through Reduced Oxygen Packaging (ROP), may show signs of danger including bulging, leaking, dents, or discoloration when the pathogens that cause botulism are present.
There were hundreds of cans to sort through. Some cans had expired in 2001/2002, others were from 2008. Of all the cans of food taken out of the old house, maybe only 10 had not yet reached their expiration date. Unfortunately, the home had previously belonged to an older individual with a history of mental illness. This individual had been put into a care center after repeatedly eating from the old cans of food and becoming extremely ill. Although there was safe food to eat in the house, the individual was unable to differentiate between the safe and contaminated foods.
Botulism is a very serious foodborne illness caused by a deadly bacterium known as Clostridium botulinum. In addition to the wide variety of canned foods available in the marketplace, cured or smoked fish, honey, canned vegetables, pork, ham, and corn syrup are also susceptible to Clostridium botulinum growth as they are packaged in low oxygen, or anaerobic, environments. The elderly, individuals with mental illness like food hoarding, and those living in cluttered and disorganized households are more susceptible to botulism as they are less able to prepare food safely or recognize the signs of pathogen growth. Additionally, many consumers do not realize that there are some strains of bacteria, like the one that causes botulism, that thrive best when little to no oxygen is present.
Approximately 15% of the 145 botulism cases reported every year in the United States are foodborne cases. Most foodborne outbreaks of botulism are caused by home-canned foods. Although 145 cases might seem inconsequential, the symptoms of botulism are very severe. Symptoms appear within 8-36 hours of consuming toxic food. According to PubMed Health, the most common symptoms of botulism are, “abdominal cramps, breathing difficulty that may lead to respiratory failure, difficulty swallowing and speaking, double vision, dry mouth, nausea, vomiting, and weakness with paralysis (equal on both sides of the body).” However, if left untreated, botulism is fatal.
For anyone who has an expired can on the shelf, there is a potential danger of foodborne illness. Be mindful of expiration dates, remember the “first in, first out,” or FIFO, rule to keep food storage fresh and well-rotated, and remember—when in doubt, throw it out.