Botulism in honey.

Date: Wed, 31 Jan 1996 18:56:21 GMT
From: Paul Iannone <p_iannone.POP.COM>
Subject: Re: Honey and boutcalism

: I believe that any food given to the rundown individual can result in harm. If you are in even reasonable health I vary much doubt that raw honey will give you botcalism poisoning. After all no bacteria will actually thrive in honey the sugar content is far to high. It will grow in your body after it has gotten into your system.

Dangerous thinking. Botulism SPORES aren't active in the honey, to be sure. Infants DO NOT have sufficient stomach acid to destroy them, and the environment of ANYONE's intestines are just the right temperature for botulism to come out of its dormant phase and thrive--killing the child. This has nothing to do with being 'rundown.' It has everything to do with age of the infant and amount of spores ingested.

I don't know if raw honey is more dangerous, since spores are usually fairly resistant to heat.

From: Valerie Rankow <vrankow.LI.NET>

Paul Bernier wrote:
> No, and I don't expect to. Honey has the property of being able to kill any bacteria that it somes into contact with -- it sort of sucks the life out of them. That's why you'll never see mold on it. Raw honey has more enzymes, etc. than the filtered and boiled variety.

I feel compelled to correct Paul Bernier's assertion. As a La Leche League leader, we were advised to warn nursing mothers NOT to use honey on their nipples, because of the possiblity, however remote, of infant botulism, which could be fatal to the baby.

>From the _Food and Nutrition Encyclopedia, 2nd ed._ entry on honey, p.1188:

"It may not be wise to feed honey to infants under 1 year of age, since infant botulism - botulism resulting from the production of toxins after the ingestion of Clostridium botulinum - may result from the ingestion of raw agricultural products. Honey has been implicated as a source in a very few cases. This type of botulism does not occur in older children and adults."

From: Eric Yarnell <yarnell.SCN.ORG>

> I recommended that people try to get and use local honey. It helps with allergies (like getting a shot of the local pollens - same thing as getting shots but naturally). I had someone tell me that there is a good chance of botulism in unprocessed honey. Has anyone ever heard such a thing?

The disease you are refering to is botulism, caused by ingestion of spores from the bacteria Clostridium botulinum which grow into the bacteria in the gut. This bacteria produces a very dangerous toxin which can be lethal. There are numerous cases of infants dying from eating honey which is contaminated with spores from this bacteria. Therefore it is recommended that honey never be given to infants. I am not currently aware of adults with competent immune systems having any problems of this nature.

From: Eric Yarnell <yarnell.SCN.ORG>

> Honey has the property of being able to kill any bacteria that it comes into contact with

Although honey is powerful antibacterial, it is not able to destroy the spores of _Clostridium botulinum_. These spores can withstand incredible stresses--an evolutionary mechanism for the bacteria to stay alive. However, the adult immune system and GI tract are usually strong enough to protect against infections. In infants this is not always the case.

From: "Susan L. Nielsen" <snielsen.EDNET1.OSL.OR.GOV>

Paul Bernier opined:
>Honey has the property of being able to kill any bacteria that it somes into contact with... That's why you'll never see mold on it.

Aside from Eric's excellent comments, it is worth noting, as well, that "mold" is not a bacterium, but a fungus. A modicum of precision might serve us well here.

From: Graham White <hendongreen.GN.APC.ORG>

>Aside from Eric's excellent comments, it is worth noting, as well, that "mold" is not a bacterium, but a fungus.

Also honey does not 'kill' bacteria as such. The low water activity in honey (and other high sugar or high salt content products) prevents bacterial growth. Fungi, having a greater tolerance for low water activity levels, will even grow in honey if you leave them for long enough.

Further, from 'Microbiology in Clinical Practice' by D. C. Shanson:

Infant Botulism - on rare occassions infants have been described who have developed signs of botulism and in whose stools the toxin, and sometimes, the infecting organism have been identified. The original source of the infection has been obscure (honey has been implicated in some cases). Characteristically, the infants present as 'floppy babies' with muscle weakness, constipation and weakening sucking ability.

From: Dana White <dwhite.IO.COM>

Botulism is a neuroparalytic disease caused by Clostridium botulinum. Infant botulism is the most frequently occuring form of the disease in this country. It occurs mainly in infants in the first few weeks of life; but has occurred in older infants up to one year. The ingestion of spores by the infant during the first few weeks of life is probably a prequisite for the development of the disease. Honey and corn syrup have been implicated as sources of the spores that cause infection. Infant botulism; unlike the adult food intoxication (ingestion of preformed toxin), is the result of colonization of the intestinal tract by the organism. The ingested spores germinate in the intestinal tract and the vegetative cells release the neurotoxin which is then absorbed into the bloodstream. Very young infants who have not yet established intestinal flora are the ones most at risk. Infant botulism has been implicated in as a possible cause of a small percentage of Sudden Infant Death cases.

C. botulinum like all of the Clostridia are spore-formers. Spores are very tough and can survive a variety of adverse conditions like the high-sugar environment of honey and corn syrup that kill off many other bacteria. Clostridia species are ubiquitous in the environment found widely in soil and untreated water.

With all that said and done I love honey myself and consume it regularly; but there seems to be evidence that it might be risky for very small infants.

Dana White, M(ASCP)


  • Spika, J. S., N. Shaffer, N. Hargrett-Bean, S. Collin, K. L. MacDonald, and P.A. Blake. 1989 Risk Factors for infant botulism in the United States. Am. J. Dis. Child. 143:828-832.
  • Lennette, Balow, Hausler, Truant, Manual of Clinical Microbiology 5th edition American Society for Microbiology