Death By Garlic

By , June 30, 2015

Michelle recently made a comment in town that led to an interesting exchange, followed by a moment of uncertainty in our household. Luckily, a second moment, one of clarity, immediately followed. We briefly forgot who we are, what we believe in, and how we live, and considered changing our ways for the sake of safety.

It started when Michelle mentioned in public that we had recently realized we could store our favorite garlicky pesto over many months, even as much as a year (see Canscape). Upon hearing a description of the pesto, her listener warned against the possibility of botulism—saying that more contemporary thinking on preserving garlic in oil warns that it can create the anaerobic environment that nurtures this extremely deadly form of bacteria. They went to the Internet and searched for articles on the subject.

Michelle came away from the conversation noting that while many of the information they found recommended purchasing the writer’s similar product rather than foolishly risking making one’s own at home, a few of the hits seemed to come from reputable sources. She then questioned whether we should preserve our pesto at the risk of killing ourselves with botulism.

My initial response favored caution, but I wasn’t totally satisfied. We searched the topic again, and considered the information we found.

Botulism is extremely deadly, and virtually impossible to detect in the home. It’s a silent killer. It’s also, apparently, extremely rare.

The articles warned that an average of 110 people die of botulism in the U.S. each year. A quarter of these deaths come about through eating poorly preserved foods. The other 75% come from infantile or intestinal botulism.

Further reading revealed that no one can avoid the last two types of botulism. If it strikes, it does so despite any efforts to avoid it.

To us, it sounds a bit similar to lightning . . . .

The articles try to reassure the reader that botulism is extremely rare, so we shouldn’t worry too much about the inevitable kind, other than to avoid feeding honey to infants under one year old. The reason: such young children have not yet developed adequate immunities to fight the bacteria.

So, let’s review. Forget preserving garlic in oil because it could lead to botulism, an extremely rare bacterium that kills fewer people in the country each year than, say, cows. Most of those deaths are unavoidable, other than to make sure you don’t feed honey to infants whose normal immune systems are unable to kill the bacteria that forms botulism. Meanwhile, give up any ideas of preserving food at home, lest one risk becoming one of the 27.5 people who will statically die of botulism each year.

Sorry, but no.

It took mere seconds to compile a long list of far riskier behaviors, such as eating in restaurants, particularly meals of factory raised and slaughtered meat animals, driving, crossing streets, taking a shower, or myriad other activities most of us never think twice about engaging in.

At once, we restored our clarity. Yes, botulism is a nasty contaminant, one to be avoided if possible. However, it’s not so worrisome as to prevent us from enjoying healthy meals in the winter, after the regular pesto season has ended.

Of course, we always have, and will continue to work to prevent any sort of food poisoning through careful food handling and mindful practices in the kitchen. We’re not going to take unnecessary risks, but neither will we avoid activities all together in hopes of remaining perfectly safe.

I’ve considered risk before on the blog (see The Illusion of Security or A Stupid Way to Die) and have concluded that even if we would prefer not to die, if we try too hard to eliminate risk from our lives, we’ll never really live. If we don’t resolve to, as John O’Donohue prayed, waste our hearts in fear no more (see A New Year Without Fear) we will fail to achieve the fullness of life we want and deserve.

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