While it feels like “all COVID all the time,” other infectious disease issues still carry on beyond the current pandemic. They’re not as big, but they’re still relevant (and a break from writing about COVID-19 is nice).

The FDA has announced a voluntary recall of whole capelin fish treats from IcelandicPlus LLC, because of concerns about botulism. Here, as with most botulism recalls, the concern is the potential for botulism, not identification of the bacterial toxin in the treats or reports of disease. Most often, the risk is limited, but with such as serious disease, there’s little risk tolerance.

Botulism is a paralytic disease caused by toxins produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. This bacterium can be found widely in the environment in some regions. If we ingest a few of these bacteria, it’s not usually a problem. If a person or a pet ingests a minute amount of the toxin, it can cause botulism.

The risk of botulism is primarily a concern in two situations. One is infants that may ingest the bacteria themselves. An infant’s intestinal bacterial population is poorly developed and this can allow the bacteria to grow in the gut (when they likely wouldn’t in an adult).  As the bacteria multiply they produce toxin, which then causes botulism.  That’s one reason we’re not supposed to give honey to infants too, because it sometimes contains C. botulinum spores.

The bigger issue is ingestion of toxin that’s already in something that’s being eaten.  The bacterium grows in specific conditions when there’s no oxygen, such as in decaying matter. When it grows, it produces toxin, and when the toxin is ingested (whether the bacteria are still there or not), botulism ensues. That’s where concerns come into play with this recall.

The recalled pet treats are whole, dried, un-eviscerated fish. That’s allowed, but there are rules about the size of the fish that can be sold like this. With larger fish, there’s more potential for conditions amenable to C. botulinum growth to occur in the fish’s gut during drying. FDA guidelines limit these small dried whole fish to 5 inches in length.  Larger cured fish have been linked to a few outbreaks of botulism in people. Since the company (IcelandicPlus LLC) has been selling fish in excess of this size, they’re being recalled.

The company has also stated that they will be changing their supplier to ensure fish are consistently less than 5 inches and that fish greater than this size will be eviscerated. That’s good, but I’d hope the company would have their own quality control program to check this, and not just blame and change the supplier.