Old headline resurfaces as causionary tale: Beware of botulism
DETROIT LAKES, Minn. - As another canning season approaches, it might be worth taking a moment to remember the story of Edward and Delphine Hein. The couple threw a dinner party 80 years ago at their farmstead two miles northeast of Grafton, N.D.
Delphine served a salad sprinkled with peas she had canned herself.
Within days, 12 people and later a 13th would fall ill and die, including the Heins and three of their six children.
Authorities determined the peas were to blame. They were contaminated by toxins produced by the clostridium botulinum bacteria, which causes botulism poisoning.
Three Hein children, Richard (Dick), Marvin (Bud) and Wilfred (Bill), were too young to attend the party and spent the evening in their rooms.
"That was a lucky break for us," said Dick Hein, who is now 94 and lives in Detroit Lakes.
His brother, Bud, is 84 and lives in Grand Forks.
Bill Hein, who was 12 years old when the three brothers missed the party that fateful night, died about five years ago, Bud Hein said.
Kith and kin
After the tragedy, the three boys found separate homes with aunts and uncles, though Dick Hein said he soon became restless and moved out to work as a laborer for farmers in the area.
He said life on the family farm in 1931 was basic and full of hard work.
Water had to be carried indoors for cooking, and wood supplied the fuel for meals and heating.
Hein, who has three sons of his own, said the parents he lost all those years ago are always near his thoughts, as are two sisters, a brother and a cousin who died from eating the salad.
Bud Hein, who raised four daughters, one of whom died about a year ago, was so young when his parents died that he remembers little of those years.
"I often think about them and wonder how things would have been if they had lived," he said of his folks.
The two surviving Hein brothers say they had to grow up quickly following their parents' deaths.
Bud Hein expressed gratitude for the home an aunt and uncle provided him, but he said when he turned 18, "I was kind of on my own."
A front-page story in the Walsh County Record from Feb. 5, 1931, described the 13 deaths as the worst tragedy in North Dakota's history.
A back-page story quoted a then 14-year-old Dick Hein as asking: "Please, will you see that our mother's wedding ring is saved so that we will have something to remember her by?"
"If only one of our sisters had lived," the boy added, "then we could have continued to operate the farm as our father has in the past."
The sad episode wasn't an isolated incident, said Julie Garden-Robinson, a food and nutrition specialist with the Extension Service at North Dakota State University.
She said a similar thing happened in South Dakota around the same time.
In that case, she said, four people died of botulism after eating green beans, which like peas are low in acid.
Low-acid foods like vegetables and meats should be canned using a pressure canner, which can achieve temperatures needed to kill dangerous spores, Garden-Robinson said.
She said boiling water will suffice for canning fruits and other foods high in acid, because acid serves to limit bacterial growth.
While botulism is rare, the danger remains, Garden-Robinson said.
"With the increased interest in gardening, we could see this happen again, especially if people dig back in their canning recipes and use very old recipes," she said.
"As long as people are using the current recommendations, there shouldn't be a huge concern," said Garden-Robinson, who tells the story of the Grafton tragedy in lectures she gives.
But she doesn't place blame.
Food preservation research didn't really develop until World War II, and the field continues to evolve, she said.
"I don't want to scare people, but it (botulism poisoning) definitely is something that could happen," she said.
"It happens even with commercial canned goods. They will periodically do massive recalls if they find out food hasn't been processed long enough," she said.
FARGO - With the home-canning season right around the corner, it is important to keep food safety in mind, said Julie Garden-Robinson, a nutrition specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service.
Under the right conditions, spores of the clostridium botulinum bacteria germinate into cells that quickly grow and die, producing the deadly neurotoxin that causes botulism.
Symptoms usually appear within 12 to 72 hours after eating contaminated food. They include blurred, double vision and difficulty swallowing and speaking.
Without treatment, death may occur within three to seven days.
Here are some of Garden-Robinson's guidelines for preventing botulism:
* Clean foods well before cooking or processing. It reduces but does not remove all bacteria.
* Use home-canning methods that are based on current research and recommendations that are properly adjusted for altitude.
* Process all home-canned meats and vegetables - with the possible exception of tomatoes - in a pressure canner at 240 degrees F for the time recommended in a current USDA research-based publication.
* Inspect food and containers before eating home-canned food. Bulging lids or leaking jars are signs of spoilage and may indicate the presence of the botulism toxin.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555