SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

FOOD AND DRINK

What we know so far about the sardine-based botulism poisoning in France

One person has died and 12 were hospitalised after an outbreak of sardine-related botulism poisoning in south-west France. Here's what happened and the risks associated with it.

What we know so far about the sardine-based botulism poisoning in France
Photo by JEAN-SEBASTIEN EVRARD / AFP

What happened?

Over the past few days 12 people have been hospitalised after suffering from botulism poisoning and one person – a 32-year-old woman living in the Paris region – has died.

Eight people remain in hospital – five of them in intensive care, including the partner of the woman who died.

Those affected had all visited the Tchin Tchin Wine Bar in Bordeaux, and health authorities have traced the outbreak to home-made preserved sardines that were served in the bar.

Authorities are calling on anyone who visited this wine bar between September 4th and 10th to seek medical help if they are suffering any symptoms.

The bar appears to be popular with tourists – of those affected the majority are either American, Canadian or German. The nationality of the woman who died has not been specified, but another case has been reported in a man who has returned to Spain after visiting Bordeaux.

There may be further cases to come. 

What is botulism?

Botulism is a rare but life-threatening condition caused by toxins produced by Clostridium botulinum bacteria.

These toxins attack the nervous system (nerves, brain and spinal cord) and cause paralysis and muscle weakness.

Food-borne botulism such as the case in Bordeaux is usually caused by imperfectly preserved or canned food. 

Symptoms include vomiting, stomach cramps, diarrhoea or constipation and – if left untreated – muscle paralysis. Signs of this paralysis can include; drooping eyelids, blurred or double vision, facial muscle weakness, difficulty swallowing, slurred speech and breathing difficulties.

Anyone with those symptoms should seek medical treatment immediately, either by going to a hospital emergency department or calling an ambulance (telephone number 15 in France or the European emergency number 112).

Emergency in France: Who to call and what to say

Is it common in France?

No, botulism is very rare in Europe – France usually has between 20 and 30 cases a year, of which around five percent are fatal.

The most common cause is infected wounds, particularly among heroin-users who use dirty needles.

Food-borne botulism – as in this case – is usually caused by imperfectly prepared canned, pickled or preserved food.

Modern factory techniques make this extremely unlikely in commercially-produced tins, pickles or preserves – although you should not eat food that comes from a damaged or bulging can or if the food has a strong, unpleasant smell.

The cause in this case appears to be a home-made sardine preserve that the owner of the wine bar had made to serve with drinks and snacks or planches (platters of bread, meat and cheese).

What happens now?

French health authorities are continuing to investigate the outbreak and say there may be more victims, as food-borne botulism poisoning can take up to 10 days for symptoms to develop.

The owner of the bar is being questioned, and authorities believe they have now identified all but 13 customers who ate the affected sardines between September 4th and September 10th. 

Hospitals continue to treat those seriously ill – in most cases hospital treatment involves keeping the patient’s airways open, and the paralysis gradually recedes after several weeks or months. 

How can I stay safe in France?

This outbreak is an extremely rare event, and there is no higher risk of food-borne botulism in France than in any other western country. 

Tips to stay safe include; not eating canned food if the tin is damaged or bulging; avoiding any preserved or canned food that has a strong, unpleasant smell; avoiding canned or preserved food that is out of date or stored at the incorrect temperature.

If you are undertaking your own pickling, canning or preserving, make sure you carefully follow the hygiene advice (such as sterilising jars before use) in the recipe. 

Member comments

  1. You say avoid “any preserved or canned food that has a strong, unpleasant smell” but, in fact, food contaminated with botulism can smell the same as uncontaminated food. Botulism contamination does not create an ‘off’ smell or appearance and it is important that people know this.

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.

FOOD AND DRINK

Top French court upholds ‘veggie burger’ label

France's top administrative court on Wednesday waded back into a battle over the labelling of veggie burgers, suspending a decree banning plant-based products from being described as meat.

Top French court upholds 'veggie burger' label

The French government in February issued a decree to ban the term “steak” on the label of vegetarian products from May 1, saying it was reserved for meat alone.

A veggie burger is called a veggie “steak” in French.

The decree listed 21 terms usually used by butchers — including “escalope”, “ham”, “filet” and “prime rib” — that it said were not allowed for plant-based products.

The ruling was a response to a long-standing complaint by the meat industry that terms like “vegetarian ham” or “vegan sausage” were confusing for consumers.

It was based on a 2020 law before the nation’s top administrative court — called the State Council — suspended application of the decree in 2022 after a complaint from French companies selling plant-based food.

The State Council on Wednesday suspended a second decree to implement the same labelling law, saying there existed “a serious doubt over the legality of such a ban”.

It would remain suspended until the Court of Justice of the European Union responded to a query over whether the measure was legal under EU law, it said.

In 2020, the European Parliament rejected a move to ban the use of terms of animal origin for plant products — except when words like “yoghurt”, “cream” or “cheese” are applied to products without animal milk.

France issued its second decree as farmers protested against environmental rules and competition from cheap imports.

SHOW COMMENTS