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Man Dies From Eating Gas Station Nacho Cheese

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Nine other people have been hospitalized

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A California man has died — and nine other people have been hospitalized — in the wake of an outbreak of botulism, a rare foodborne poisoning caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. The source? Processed nacho cheese sauce, according to several reports, including one from NPR.

California Department of Public Health (CDPH) tests confirm that nacho cheese sauce served at a gas station in Sacramento County contained the bacterium, which is extremely rare but can be deadly. The sauce was removed from the gas station, Valley Oak Food and Fuel gas, as of May 5. The CDPH confirmed yesterday in a release that “there is no continuing risk to the public.” Anyone who may have visited that gas station and experienced double or blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, or muscle weakness is encouraged to immediately seek medical care.

Martin Galindo, the man who died, had been in the hospital for weeks after consuming the sauce. NPR reported that he had been on a ventilator before he fell into a coma. His family set up a GoFundMe page to help with expenses. So far they have raised over $17,000 of a target $80,000.

About 200 people were affected by botulism in 2015 in the United States, but only 39 of those cases were from the foodborne version. Botulism can also occur in infants and be transmitted via wounds. On average, between 3 and 5 percent of people affected die from the poison, which starts by paralyzing nerves in the face, mouth, and throat.

Most of the time, foodborne botulism outbreaks occur as a result of home canning. If jars of jam, vegetables, or fruits are not completely sealed — or if they are stored for too long — they can harbor the bacterium, which grows in warm, moist atmospheres.

It is not clear exactly how the bacterium got into this gas station’s sealed bags of processed cheese sauce, but Randy Worobo, professor of food microbiology at Cornell University’s department of food science, has a couple of ideas. “It could be from the raw ingredients used to make the sauce,” he told Eater by phone, “or it could be from cross-contamination.” Worobo says Clostridium botulinum — which can exist in dormant spores that are activated when warmed slightly — is generally associated with soil and low-acid foods, so dried milk powdered in the sauce or the cheese used to make the sauce (which came from a dairy) could be to blame. “Clostridium botulinum only grows in very low- to no-oxygen environments, so it could have grown in the sealed bags if they were warm, but not hot enough to kill the bacteria,” Worobo says.

The other option depends on the gas station’s setup. “Imagine if someone is serving themselves at this gas station and there’s a bin of onions and a bin of pickled peppers near the cheese,” Worobo says. “If the vegetables were contaminated in any way and the same utensil was used to serve the cheese, the cheese would become inoculated.”

As Eater reported earlier this year, food safety outbreaks trigger a multi-department response. Local agencies work with states and the Centers for Disease Control as soon as medical personnel diagnose an illness, and then trace each possible source until they are able to isolate it. This complex but essential process would not be possible without the CDC’s PulseNet, a laboratory network and database of millions of foodborne cultures. Adapt at isolating poisons and quickly preventing their spread, thereby minimizing illness and fatalities, PulseNet relies on funding from the Affordable Care Act to operate. A repeal of the ACA would put its services in jeopardy.

Nacho Cheese Sauce Tainted With Botulism Kills California Man [NPR]
CDPH Testing Confirms Botulism Linked to Nacho Cheese Sauce Sold at Sacramento County Gas Station [CDPH]

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