The Short-Lived Epidemic of Botulism From Commercially Canned Foods in the United States, 1919 to 1925

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In 1919, three deadly outbreaks of botulism caused by consumption of canned olives packed in California captured national headlines. In all of the outbreaks, which occurred in separate locales, unsuspecting people died after consuming tainted food during a banquet or family meal. The press's sensational portrayal of canned food as hazardous aroused alarm among consumers at a time when commercial canning was becoming more common. Intent on restoring the image of their product as safe and wholesome, canning industry leaders funded a “botulism commission” of scientific experts in 1919 to investigate how to systematically eliminate the threat of botulism that had imperiled their business. The commissioners identified the scientific reasons for the outbreaks, and on the basis of their findings, the California Department of Public Health issued explicit recommendations for sterilization procedures intended to ensure safety. However, the department did not mandate inspections for all canneries. When commercially packed fruits and vegetables continued to cause botulism, industry leaders voluntarily backed a cannery inspection act to legally require all California canners to possess appropriate equipment and follow scientifically validated sterilization procedures. After the California legislature approved the act in 1925, canneries were inspected, regulations were enforced, and no further outbreaks occurred.

This botulism epidemic is an example of a disease outbreak that was controlled when business interests became aligned with public health goals. The press's portrayal of afflicted persons as innocent victims and worthy citizens galvanized businessmen to implement safeguards to protect consumers from botulism intoxication. To preserve their customer base and salvage their corporations, leaders of the canning industry acknowledged the public health threat of their unregulated procedures and acted on the recommendations of scientists.

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