By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia
In September, three Georgians suffered respiratory failure after drinking carrot juice. A Florida woman was hospitalized in mid-September, and on Oct. 11, Toronto, Ontario, newspapers reported that two people there were hospitalized and have suffered paralysis.
These recent cases of botulism – a foodborne disease that can cause nausea, fatigue, blurred vision, difficulty swallowing and speaking, paralysis, respiratory failure and even death – have put carrot juice in headlines across North America.
Symptoms of botulism usually appear 12 to 36 hours after ingestion, but may take several days. Botulism cannot be spread from person to person.
“Botulism is a food intoxication,” said University of Georgia food safety specialist Elizabeth Andress. “If the bacteria are in the right product, they actually produce a toxin.”
Andress says the chances of botulism growing in food products increases if foods are improperly stored.
“That’s what is suspected in the carrot juice cases,” she said. “And it’s the toxin that makes us sick.”
In the past month, both the Georgia Department of Agriculture and Florida Department of Health have discovered four cases of botulism. Each of these cases has been linked to commercially bottled carrot juice produced by Bolthouse Farms, Inc., in Bakersfield, California.
“They are suspecting that it’s the result of the consumers' not keeping the product properly refrigerated once they purchase it,” Andress said. “But they are still investigating to find out if there have been other reasons for this.”
According to the Georgia Department of Agriculture, this particular carrot juice is flash pasteurized (subjected briefly to a relatively high temperature).
“Any time a beverage label says ‘keep refrigerated,’ that’s there for safety purposes, and it’s essential that you do that,” Andress said. “Most juices are pasteurized, which is not enough heat to destroy the spores of C. botulinum if they’re there. And those are going to be a problem in your vegetable juices in particular.”
Currently, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is warning consumers not to drink Bolthouse Farms carrot juice if it has a “best if used by” date of Nov. 11 or earlier.
In the four U.S. cases, the FDA is emphasizing “the consumer recommendations,” Andress said. “But why I still think they’re investigating it is that they need to make sure there are not problems in the whole distribution channel. If somebody else hasn’t kept it cold enough, it’s not going to do you any good to keep it cold.”
Andress says the key to preventing cases of foodborne illnesses like these lies in the hands of both the consumer and the producer. She says consumers and producers must follow refrigeration guidelines to keep food products safe.
“If the juice bottle says ‘keep refrigerated,’ do what it says,” she said. “It’s also important to purchase your foods from stores you feel certain are keeping temperature control on their end also.”
For safety sake, Andress says home refrigerator temperatures should be no higher than 40 degrees Fahrenheit.