Botulism (Hypochondia) Freakout
October 18, 2010 8:41 AM   Subscribe

Paranoid filter: I ate one bite of a pumpkin butter that was given to me as a Christmas gift last December. Should I fear botulism?

There's not much more to say. I ate one small bite of this pumpkin butter (not sure why I waited like 9 months to try it, but I did.) It was canned properly (by a friend), I'm pretty sure, but it hasn't been refrigerated. Now my hypochondria is kicking in. Should I be worried I'm going to get seriously ill in the next 12 hours or should I just take a breath and chill the f out?
posted by tacoma1 to Food & Drink (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Do you feel sick? No? Then don't worry about it.
posted by empath at 8:42 AM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Was it opened? Or did you just open it for the first time?

If it was unopened, it should be fine. That's what canning is for.

If it was opened - did it smell bad?
posted by Sassyfras at 8:45 AM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Oh man, this happens to me a lot. I'll be happily eating something, then I'll notice that it's past the expiration date by a few days, or the jar said keep refrigerated and it's been in the cabinet, or whatever, and I'll automatically start feeling sick. Even though there's nothing wrong with me. We call it getting a "christmas tummy ache" because it's the same sort of anxiety-produced nausea I feel whenever I have to go to stressful family christmas things.

If it was canned properly and unopened, you have nothing to worry about.
posted by phunniemee at 8:52 AM on October 18, 2010


If it was canned properly, then it doesn't need to be refrigerated until it's opened. Was the seal intact when you opened it? If so, you are probably fine. Slather it on some buttered scones for me.
posted by fancyoats at 8:57 AM on October 18, 2010


As mentioned, if it was canned properly but unopened until now then the lack of refrigeration and the time frame shouldn't matter. Properly home-canned food can keep for a year, easily.

If it was opened - did it smell bad?

You can't see, smell, or taste the toxin that causes botulism. Even if you could, a fatal dose is extremely small (on the order of billionths of a gram).

Just keep an eye out for the symptoms. They're pretty unmistakable. If you start to experience them, get to an emergency room immediately. Botulism is rare but very, very serious.
posted by jedicus at 9:01 AM on October 18, 2010 [3 favorites]


I retract my previous "you're fine" statement. Apparently pumpkin puree/pumpkin butter/ pumpkin pie filling, etc are not recommended for home-canning by the USDA. If you can ignore the use of comic sans, this will tell you why.
posted by fancyoats at 9:05 AM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


If it was opened - did it smell bad?

I wasn't limiting the contamination/problems to just botulism. I should have been more clear.
posted by Sassyfras at 9:05 AM on October 18, 2010


Apparently pumpkin puree/pumpkin butter/ pumpkin pie filling, etc are not recommended for home-canning by the USDA.

That's a very informative link. Although I said 'properly home-canned,' in this case it seems unlikely that it was canned with the kind of temperature and pressure needed to produce a safe product, such as that used by commercial producers. You should let your friend know not to produce any more home-canned pumpkin butter or other mashed pumpkin products, and anyone else that still has any should be told to discard it.

Here are links that don't have the goofy font: University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service and National Center for Home Food Preservation.
posted by jedicus at 9:13 AM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Generally speaking, botulinum (along with a lot of other anaerobes) will cause gas expansion. That's why you always have that "discard if button is popped" system for commercially bottled things. So, if it has that, you can relax a little.

Of course, if there are no symptoms for two days, then you can *really* relax. :)
posted by Citrus at 9:15 AM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


Some additional info on the infamous pumpkin spread:

Other jars from the same batch were given last Christmas to other people, were eaten, and no one got ill.

The lid was sealed tight, I believe, because I had to leverage a butter knife to pop it open.

Now do you think I can relax? :)
posted by tacoma1 at 9:33 AM on October 18, 2010


Now do you think I can relax? :)

The odds are probably in your favor, but still keep an eye on the symptoms. And your friend still shouldn't make any more of the stuff. There's just too much variability in the product, the acid level is too low, and home canners are too weak. This is a real risk. There was a recall of commercial pumpkin butter earlier this year because of concerns of botulism, and there has been one relatively recent case of death due to botulism-contaminated home-canned pumpkin butter [pdf].
posted by jedicus at 9:46 AM on October 18, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sounds like you can relax if you stop eating the pumpkin butter, throw out the reat, and pay attention to your symptoms for a few days, just in case.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:22 AM on October 18, 2010


Unless you have evidence to suspect that the food was actually dangerous, you have very little chance of being poisoned by botulism... Like a 1 in 2,000,000 chance according to the NIH, which is twice as high as being injured by a lightning strike (NWS). To put this in a more common perspective, you have roughly a 1 in 8,000 chance of dying in a car accident this year (NHTSA).

Wear you seatbelt when you're in the car, don't be the tallest metal object around in the rain, and worry less about your food killing you.
posted by Dr. ShadowMask at 10:23 AM on October 18, 2010 [5 favorites]


Unless you have evidence to suspect that the food was actually dangerous, you have very little chance of being poisoned by botulism... Like a 1 in 2,000,000 chance according to the NIH, which is twice as high as being injured by a lightning strike

Those odds are inapplicable. First, that's everyone, not people who eat home-canned food, which is a major source of botulism in the US. Second, vegetables such as pumpkin are much more dangerous than fruit-based home-canned products. So the asker's odds are considerably higher than 2,000,000:1 because we do, in fact, have evidence that the food was dangerous. Not conclusive evidence, but evidence nonetheless.

Are the odds still pretty low? Yes. But it's still worth watching for symptoms, and it's definitely worth not making or eating unsafe home-canned food.
posted by jedicus at 11:53 AM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


and worry less about your food killing you

+1

And as far as people saying the OP should be 'watching for symptoms', I feel like that kind of goes without saying, especially since he/she posted the question in the first place. I mean, doesn't everyone have some sort of awareness of their body anyway.

Knowing the symptoms is great, keep them in mind, and don't sweat the small stuff (and this is definitely 'small stuff' until you feel some more definite symptoms).
posted by RolandOfEld at 1:48 PM on October 18, 2010


I imagine it is perfectly safe to can pumpkin butter at home if you use a pressure canner, which lots and lots of folks I know use all the time. The link above probably is referring to the inadvisability of canning pumpkin butter in a boiling water bath.
posted by purenitrous at 3:00 PM on October 18, 2010


I imagine it is perfectly safe to can pumpkin butter at home if you use a pressure canner, which lots and lots of folks I know use all the time. The link above probably is referring to the inadvisability of canning pumpkin butter in a boiling water bath.

This link clearly spells out: "Only pressure canning methods are recommended for canning cubed pumpkin. We have no properly researched directions to recommend for canning mashed or pureed pumpkin or winter squash, or pumpkin butter."

NO home canning process, not even pressure canning, is approved for pumpkin butter.

tacoma1, the USDA sets its recommendations conservatively and I would guess there's a very low chance that you will get botulism from this one jar of pumpkin butter. However, the longer your friend goes on canning pumpkin butter at home, the more likely she is to produce a contaminated batch. I realize that telling people they're doing things wrong/dangerously, especially when they're just trying to produce nice yummy homemade gifts for everyone, is an area of very dicey etiquette, but try to find a way to diplomatically inform your friend of the USDA recommendations. If she's aware of them but chooses to can pumpkin butter at home anyway, it might be interesting to have a conversation about how she understands the risks.
posted by Orinda at 5:13 PM on October 18, 2010 [1 favorite]


How Safe is Home Canning?
Elizabeth Andress, project director at the National Center for Home Food Preservation, noted that there were 160 botulism outbreaks from 1990-2000 in the U.S., affecting 263 people. Most of those cases came from home canning. Alaska, a unique case given the traditions of its native population, accounted for 103 of the 263 cases, the bulk of those coming from foods (such as fish or seal oil) that were fermented at room temperature and eaten without cooking, fairly major no-nos.

That leaves 160 cases over the decade for the other 49 states. Non-commercial food processsing accounted for 91 percent of those cases, and the most common cause (44 percent) was home-canned vegetables.
But if everyone else that ate it is fine, the seal is intact, and the food isn't discolored or anything, I wouldn't worry about it. A year isn't overly long for canned food.
posted by electroboy at 6:30 AM on October 19, 2010


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