Q: How do I avoid botulism poisoning in my potato salad and deviled eggs during the summer picnic season? I am very concerned about this.
— Chris Snashall, Grove City, Ohio
A: Let’s first distinguish between botulism and other forms of foodborne illnesses.
Botulism is a severe illness in which a nerve toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum causes paralysis — and in severe cases, death.
Botulism is most often caused by food that isn’t properly home-canned. Typically it results when low-acid foods (such as potatoes or green beans) are not pressure-canned; the high temperature of that process is required to make them safe.
Because the botulinum toxin is destroyed by high temperatures, people who eat home-canned foods should, to ensure safety, consider boiling the food for 10 minutes before eating it.
Other common causes of botulism are home-made herb or garlic oils that aren’t refrigerated, and potatoes that have been wrapped in foil to bake and either not kept hot enough or refrigerated in the foil. In both cases, the bacteria are left at a temperature at which they can multiply rapidly.
Unless you are making your potato salad and deviled eggs with home-canned foods, botulism should not be a concern. Other bacteria, however, are.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most common causes of foodborne-illnesses are the bacteria salmonella, clostridium perfringens and campylobacter.
Although these bacteria can cause death — particularly in the very young, the elderly and those whose immune systems are compromised — they more often cause intestinal illness of varying degrees. With symptoms that include vomiting, cramping and diarrhea, such sicknesses are what we typically think of as food poisoning.
To thwart food poisoning, take a few precautions:
• Make sure food stays out of the danger zone: 41 to 140 degrees, the temperatures between which bacteria multiply rapidly.
• Make sure all food is properly cooked before serving.
• Never leave food at room temperature for longer than two hours or outside in high temperatures for longer than one hour; and discard foods that have been sitting out longer.
• When possible, keep foods such as potato salad and deviled eggs on ice. Refrigerate them soon after everyone fills their plates.
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