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Botulism outbreak suspected to have started at Sacramento region gas station

Sacramento County Public Health officials, led by Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye, are investigating Valley Oak Food and Fuel gas station in Walnut Grove after several customers contracted botulism after eating prepared food from the station.
Sacramento County Public Health officials, led by Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye, are investigating Valley Oak Food and Fuel gas station in Walnut Grove after several customers contracted botulism after eating prepared food from the station. Sacramento Bee file

Sacramento County Public Health officials are investigating a botulism outbreak after several people who ate prepared food from the Valley Oak Food and Fuel gas station in Walnut Grove contracted the possibly fatal form of food poisoning.

County Public Health Officer Dr. Olivia Kasirye said five cases are under investigation, with the affected people in serious condition at local hospitals. Four of the five people hospitalized confirmed they’d eaten prepared food from the gas station, Kasirye said. The county wants to ensure that anyone else who has eaten food from there since April 23 and is experiencing botulism symptoms receives immediate medical attention.

The most common symptoms of botulism include stomach cramping and vomiting, Kasirye said.

The gas station, which sits on a busy stretch of River Road across from the Walnut Grove Bridge, stopped selling food and drink products after the county Department of Environmental Management temporarily revoked its permit. The aisles of mini-market staples such as chips, candy bars, nuts, jerky and packaged pastries were blocked off with a green rope Monday, and only cigarettes and gasoline were for sale.

Employees at Valley Oak Food and Fuel declined to comment Monday.

Botulism is caused by the bacteria clostridium botulinum, which lives in most foods but only causes problems in very specific environments, said Linda Harris, a food safety microbiologist at UC Davis.

“It’s in a lot of foods we eat everyday,” Harris said. “But eating the organism doesn’t make us sick. The organism needs to have an opportunity to multiply in a food. When it multiplies it makes a toxin, and the toxin, when ingested, makes us sick.”

If that toxin affects the respiratory system, it can cause a person to stop breathing, Kasirye said. Other symptoms include blurry vision, slurred speech and droopy eyelids. Hospitals treat botulism with an antitoxin followed by intravenous liquids and breathing support, she said. About 5 to 10 percent of botulism cases are fatal, according to the World Health Organization.

Clostridium botulinum thrives in moist, low-oxygen, low-acidity environments, showing up in homemade canned foods or cooked commercial foods stored at the wrong temperature, Harris said. The bacteria is heat-resistant, so it won’t die during the cooking process like some other harmful organisms.

“There are a whole bunch of foods that in a gas station you won’t have to worry about - things like candy bars, packaged chips,” Harris said. “Anything that’s meant to be stored and sold at room temperature is not at risk for botulism.”

The U.S. saw 161 confirmed cases of botulism in 2014, only 15 of which were food-borne, according to the most recent report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the other cases were among infants who ingested clostridium botulinum spores before their digestive systems were fully formed.

The California Department of Public Health is investigating two cases of botulism in Orange County this week, both of which are linked to a deer-antler tea product. Other recent food-borne botulism outbreaks involved pesto from a San Clemente farm in 2014 and home-canned potatoes served at an Ohio church potluck in 2015.

Bill Marler, a lawyer with Seattle-based food safety law firm Marler Clark, said all the botulism cases he’s worked on have involved home canning, and that outbreaks in restaurant settings are extremely rare.

“To have five people with botulism in one place, I would consider that an enormous outbreak,” Marler said.

Customers just stopping into a gas station for a candy bar don’t have much to worry about, Harris said. The bigger dangers lie in your own kitchen.

“Keep hot foods hot and cold foods cold,” Harris said. “Don’t keep leftovers out at room temperature for long periods of time. It’s a probability game. It’s not that every time you make a mistake, this is going to be the consequence. But when it does happen, it’s a very serious disease.”

Sammy Caiola: 916-321-1636, @SammyCaiola

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