Remarkable Botulism — the Putin of Food Pathogens

I have a ghoulish fascination with Clostridium botulinum

Karen Constable
6 min readMar 23


Image by Don Fontijn on Unsplash

Botulism — a deadly foodborne illness — made an unexpected appearance in plant-based milk last month. And it sent a chill through the food safety community.

Botulism is deadly

Botulism is possibly the scariest food-borne illness there is. And I for one would NOT want to get it.

Here’s what happens to you if you are unlucky enough to eat food that contains the toxin that causes botulism, botulinum toxin.

A few hours to a few days after eating heavily contaminated food you start experiencing neurological symptoms that include blurred vision, difficulty speaking and swallowing, then paralysis. If you don’t get medical help quickly the toxin paralyses your heart and lungs and you experience respiratory failure and then death (source).

The friend of a victim described the final two months of his life before he succumbed to the disease as follows: “He could not move, he couldn’t talk, he couldn’t breathe, but he was conscious and aware and could understand and somewhat able to communicate,” (source)

The good news is that there are antitoxins and in the United States, the fatality rate is around five percent (source).

The bad news is that the antitoxins do not reverse paralysis but just stop it from progressing. Recovery depends on your body regenerating new nerve connections and patients may need to be on ventilators for weeks or months. Survivors can experience fatigue and shortness of breath for years (source).

You only need a tiny amount of toxin to cause life-threatening symptoms. In fact, one teaspoon of the toxin contains enough to kill more than 70 million people. (This is based on a lethal dose of 70 nanograms for a 70 kg adult).

Botulism is an ever-present risk

Botulism is rare, but it’s surprisingly easy to create an outbreak by disregarding food safety practices.

Botulism, the disease, is caused by botulinum toxin getting into people. Usually, it gets in when someone eats food that contains the toxin. Less commonly, the toxin…



Karen Constable

I keep you up to date with food integrity news (food safety and food fraud). Creator of the ultra-popular Food Fraud Risk Information Trello board.