Washington Man Paralyzed by Botulism from Improperly Canned Food

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By Daisy Luther

Home canning is a great way to preserve food. It’s an old-fashioned skill that has undergone a lot of research, resulting in modern updates.

Sometimes people are resistant to these updates. When I recently published my book, The Prepper’s Canning Guide, I can’t tell you how many emails I received telling me, for example, that a pressure canner isn’t necessary. That the reader’s grandma used a water bath canner for everything and she lived to the ripe old age of 114. That by my adherence to the guidelines set forth by the USDA, I’m “selling out” and kowtowing to the government. One person even wrote that he “used to read my website but no longer would” since my book followed the USDA recommendations for canning.

There’s a very good reason that I adhere to those guidelines. To do otherwise could be deadly.

A Washington state man, attorney Mike O’Connell, learned this lesson the hard way recently, when he ended up in the emergency room with all of the symptoms of a stroke-in-progress. He was dizzy. His legs were so rubbery they would hardly hold him up.  He was experiencing double vision.

But the tests came back negative for stroke and the hospital staff sent O’Connell home.

Over the next two days, his condition worsened. Added symptoms included drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, and extreme weakness. When his daughter arrived to visit, she was horrified to see his breathing was shallow. She called a friend who was a neurosurgeon, who gave her a checklist that included the food-borne illness, botulism.

The CDC’s page on botulism says:

Botulism is a rare but serious paralytic illness caused by a nerve toxin that is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum and sometimes by strains ofClostridium butyricum and Clostridium baratii.  Foodborne botulism is caused by eating foods that contain the botulinum toxin. All forms of botulism can be fatal and are considered medical emergencies.

Clostridium botulinum is the name of a group of bacteria. They can be found in soil. These rod-shaped organisms grow best in low oxygen conditions. The bacteria form spores which allow them to survive in a dormant state until exposed to conditions that can support their growth.The classic symptoms of botulism include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness. Infants with botulism appear lethargic, feed poorly, are constipated, and have a weak cry and poor muscle tone. These are all symptoms of the muscle paralysis caused by the bacterial toxin. If untreated, these symptoms may progress to cause paralysis of the respiratory muscles, arms, legs, and trunk. In foodborne botulism, symptoms generally begin 18 to 36 hours after eating a contaminated food, but they can occur as early as 6 hours or as late as 10 days.

The classic symptoms of botulism include double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth, and muscle weakness. Infants with botulism appear lethargic, feed poorly, are constipated, and have a weak cry and poor muscle tone. These are all symptoms of the muscle paralysis caused by the bacterial toxin. If untreated, these symptoms may progress to cause paralysis of the respiratory muscles, arms, legs, and trunk. In foodborne botulism, symptoms generally begin 18 to 36 hours after eating a contaminated food, but they can occur as early as 6 hours or as late as 10 days.

O’Connell’s daughter rushed him back to the hospital and told staff of her suspicions. They treated him with anti-toxin from the CDC.

In this day and age, the question was, how on earth did a Washington attorney end up with such a rare form of food poisoning?

O’Connell had the answer to that. He had taken shortcuts when canning some elk meat.  KPLU News in Seattle reported:

…The night before O’Connell woke up with double vision, he had eaten some elk meat from a hunting trip. He canned it himself about a week earlier.

“Borrowed a pressure cooker, used an old family recipe for canning,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell’s mother had canned everything when he was a kid. He wanted to recapture a bit of his childhood. But things started going wrong from the start.

I had way too much meat to deal with,” said O’Connell.

The pressure cooker was too small. O’Connell had already browned the meat in a cast iron pan. So he decided to shortcut the process. Once the jars sealed airtight he would take them out of the pressure cooker and start a new batch. The next day, he heard a pop in the pantry.

“Which I remember as a child was the signal for you’ve lost the seal,” said O’Connell.

O’Connell found the jar with the popped seal, put it in the fridge and ate it the next day. He says it was delicious. The following week he heard another lid pop. Just as he had before, O’Connell found the jar and stuck it in the fridge. And a few days later he ate it for supper.

“This time, it didn’t work out,” O’Connell said.

O’Connell had an upset stomach in the night, but he didn’t connect it to having eaten the meat. He says growing up, he didn’t know anyone who got food poisoning from home canned foods.


So you know those people who say,”I’ve never heard of anyone getting botulism from home-canned food. That’s just a scare tactic from the USDA.” Well, you can tell them about Mr. O’Connell, who still hasn’t fully recovered from his bout with unsafely preserved food. In fact, he may never completely recover.

Despite the administration of the anti-toxin, O’Connell became paralyzed.  After extensive rehab, he can now walk with the aid of a cane. His sense of taste is gone and may never return. His vision is finally back to normal.

Let me be as clear as possible. THERE ARE NO SHORT CUTS IN CANNING. You have to do things properly, adhering to tested methods that result the safest possible product. Would you risk the above scenario happening to your child, all because you don’t want to use a pressure canner? It’s really not difficult at all. The Prepper’s Canning Guide provides simple, step-by-step instructions that will walk you through the methods of making your home-preserved food as safe as possible.

We have the equipment available to make things far safer than Grandma did. The refusal to use it would be like refusing to put your infant in a car seat or refusing to ask your toddler to buckle up in the car. We know these things are safe, so we do them, despite the fact that most of us survived many a car ride standing on the center armrest of the front seat, gleefully watching the road ahead while keeping one hand on the parent beside us for balance.

I strongly encourage home preservation of food. It’s simple, inexpensive, and fun. Just do it safely, follow instructions,  and remember, THERE ARE NO ACCEPTABLE SHORTCUTS IN CANNING. Just because your great grandmother didn’t die from botulism, it doesn’t mean you or your loved ones won’t. It’s simply not worth the risk.

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther

Daisy Luther is a coffee-swigging, globe-trotting blogger. She is the founder and publisher of three websites.  1) The Organic Prepper, which is about current events, preparedness, self-reliance, and the pursuit of liberty on her website, 2)  The Frugalite, a website with thrifty tips and solutions to help people get a handle on their personal finances without feeling deprived, and 3) PreppersDailyNews.com, an aggregate site where you can find links to all the most important news for those who wish to be prepared. She is widely republished across alternative media and  Daisy is the best-selling author of 5 traditionally published books and runs a small digital publishing company with PDF guides, printables, and courses. You can find her on FacebookPinterest, Gab, MeWe, Parler, Instagram, and Twitter.

Leave a Reply

  • Reminds me of what I was told as a child, “It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

    Good article to remind us of preserving food properly.

  • I’m sorry for the man who endured this and may suffer for life because of it. I wanted to say Thank You to you for encouraging people to can safely. I am a skeptic when it comes to government regulations as well, but I took microbiology in college and saw things growing in petri dishes. I do not believe that these regulations are made up or over cautious! You are wise to encourage people to stay safe and not take shortcuts. Thank you!

  • But him using his family recipe wasn’t the shortcut. This article is misleading in suggesting that the reason he got sick was because he didn’t follow your guideline, which isn’t the case. He got sick because he didn’t follow any guidelines, he shortcut the family recipe. You are right in that there is no shortcut in canning, but your suggestion that this somehow justifies your preference of usda methods is totally false. I give this article a Hmmmm…bs/10

    • Nooooo………….that’s not what I said.

      The guidelines are NOT mine, they were developed by the USDA. I stand by my statement that it’s NOT worth the risk to use other methods. We should always use the safest process possible. I don’t believe we have to limit ourselves to only tested recipes. We can use our own recipes as long as we carefully adhere to certain safety guidelines.

  • I’ll be new to canning this year. I’m scared of doing it wrong and truly appreciate ANY guidelines….no matter who they come from! The goal is safety. The more information, the better! Thanks for all that you do, Daisy!

  • I’m still trying to figure out what he did in the canning process. He did use a pressure canner right? You said it was too small, so did he still use it? Did he cook it long enough?

    • Mary:

      He did a couple of things wrong.

      First, he didn’t process the meat long enough. He wanted to speed along the batches so he pulled the jars out before the processing time was up and put in the next batch.

      Second, when the seals popped, he ate the food anyway. If you are canning and something simply doesn’t seal, it’s okay to eat that right away. If the seal fails later, or if you discover it after a week or so, that food should be thrown away.

      “When in doubt, throw it out.”

  • We lost 2 horses to botulism. It is a horrible, horrible way to die. Don’t take any chances. It is almost impossible to cure because there are many kinds of botulism and if they don’t figure it out right away, you are gone.

  • Dear Daisy,
    Amen and thank you. We all need a little reminder now and then. Regarding negative comments that you received on The Organic Canner: I find it amazing that so many people have such a critical spirit and are so quick to pounce on those who are willing to share knowledge and good advice. I’ll bet those same people embrace many other modern conveniences and information. (Would they use chipped jars, rubber rings and zinc lids?) Why remain ignorant to our own peril and choose reckless behavior over caution?

  • Well you may have lost old followers, but you’ve gained at least one new with this post. New to canning – sort of, use to make jelly with my mother a long time ago. There is nothing wrong with USDA guidelines. Better safe than sorry.

  • I have canned hundreds of pints of meat over the last ten years always using ball blue book processing times with never a problem. What I don’t understand is what the guy used to decide when the cans were sealed. Any one who has run a pressure canner knows that you must vent steam for seven to ten minutes then bring it up to pressure. After the processing time you shut it off and wait for the pressure to reach zero before opening the canner. We also know that if you are in a hurry and pull the jars as soon as the pressure is zero the jars actually don’t seal until they start to cool outside the canner. All I can think is that this person is so clueless that he might not have gotten it right even if he wasn’t pressed for time.
    So everyone who wants to can. Get a reliable book, read it, follow the directions and have good safe food.

  • For heaven’s sake, don’t use an electric pressure cooker to can anything, no matter what the manufacturer claims! Canning meat and most vegetables is done with a combination of heat, pressure and time, and taking shortcuts with one of these machines could lead to an untimely and painful demise.

    On another note, my electric pressure cooker is great for making grits. No more owies from those flying grits blobs!

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