Del Monte Foods has recalled 64,242 cases of a particular type of canned corn due to a concern that it could cause “life-threatening illness” if eaten.
The recalled products are 15.25-ounce (432-gram) cans of Fiesta Corn Seasoned with Red & Green Peppers, according to an announcement issued by the FDA on December 11. The affected products have the UPC number 24000 02770 on the label, as well as a range of "best if used by" dates from August 14, 2021, to Sept 23, 2021. (To see a complete list of the specific "best if used by" dates to be on the lookout for, click here.) No other Del Monte products are involved in the recall.
The reason these specific products were recalled is because they were underprocessed, per the FDA alert. “These deviations were part of the commercial sterilization process and could result in contamination by spoilage organisms or pathogens, which could lead to life-threatening illness if consumed,” the FDA says. The possibly contaminated cans were distributed to stores (including Walmart and Target) in 25 states and 12 international locations, the agency says. Currently, there have been no reported illnesses linked to this recall.
The FDA didn’t specifically say what illness they’re worried about, but experts suspect that it’s botulism.
Botulism is a rare but serious illness caused by a toxin that attacks the body’s nerves, according to the CDC. The toxin that leads to botulism is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum or sometimes strains of Clostridium butyricum and Clostridium baratii, as SELF reported previously.
These bacteria that make botulinum toxin are found naturally in many places, like in soil, but they rarely make people sick, the CDC says. The bacteria make spores which help them survive; and, under certain conditions, the spores can grow and make one of the most lethal toxins known, the CDC explains. Those conditions include having a low-oxygen or no oxygen (anaerobic) environment, low acid, low sugar, low salt, a certain temperature range, and a certain amount of water.
When canned foods are preserved incorrectly, it can create the ideal conditions for these spores to grow and produce botulinum toxin, which can make you really sick if you eat these foods, infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells SELF. “In order to make canned foods shelf-stable, there has to be some kill step,” food safety expert Darin Detwiler, Ph.D., director of the Regulatory Affairs of Food and Food Industries program at Northeastern University, tells SELF. “If any kill steps are missing, the product isn’t shelf-stable, and botulism can grow and multiply.”
Botulism is an incredibly serious illness, but remember that it's very rare.
The illness isn’t common in the U.S., but there are usually a few hundred cases of it every year. In 2016, for example, 205 confirmed cases of botulism were reported to the CDC.
Botulism can cause symptoms like double vision, blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, difficulty breathing, a thick-feeling tongue, dry mouth, and muscle weakness, the CDC says. The toxin itself actually causes muscle paralysis, which is what’s behind the symptoms. And, if it’s untreated, it can progress and paralyze different muscles in your body, including those that you need to breathe, Dr. Adalja says.
There are different forms of botulism, including wound botulism (where the spores get into a wound and grow), infant botulism (which affects babies), adult intestinal toxemia (a rare form where the spores of the bacteria get into an adult’s intestines, grow, and produce the toxin), and iatrogenic botulism (which happens when too much botulinum toxin is injected for cosmetic reasons, like to combat wrinkles). However, foodborne is usually the most common form in adults, per the CDC.
If you happen to develop foodborne botulism, you’ll usually notice symptoms about 18 to 36 hours after you eat a contaminated food, the CDC says. That said, you can have symptoms as early as six hours after you ate the food, or up to 10 days later.
If you start to notice symptoms of botulism in yourself or a loved one, get to the emergency room ASAP. Treatment called an antitoxin can help stop the toxin from causing any more damage, but it can’t reverse the damage it’s already done, Dr. Adalja says—so getting treated quickly and early is crucial. The paralysis that the toxin causes will usually get better slowly, but people may need to stay in the hospital for weeks or even months after being diagnosed, the CDC says.
There are a few things you can do to protect yourself against foodborne botulism.
In this case, if you have this canned corn at home, you should return it to the store where you bought it or throw it out, per the FDA.
In general, there’s no way to know if a food is contaminated with botulism, as it probably won't look or taste different. But in regards to canned foods specifically, you’ll want to steer clear of any canned foods that appear to be bulging, Detwiler says, noting that the rings at the top or bottom of the can should not be pushing out. “That’s a sign of botulism right there,” he says. (When the bacteria multiplies, it creates gas that creates that bulging, Dr. Adalja adds.)
The same is true if you open a can and it smells off or looks gassy. “If it doesn’t look or smell right, there’s something wrong,” Detwiler says. Also, if you buy a food at the store that’s supposed to be refrigerated after you open it, make sure you follow that instruction, Benjamin Chapman, Ph.D., an assistant professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, tells SELF. That means carrot juice, cheese sauce, chicken stock, etc., all need to go in the fridge—not your pantry—after you open them. “Refrigeration stops the growth of the toxin,” Chapman says.
But overall, you don't need to quit canned goods or worry about contracting botulism, as it's uncommon. Canned goods are considered pretty safe to eat as long as you follow the storage instructions, Chapman says—and know the potential warning signs of a contaminated product.