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1 Dead, 9 Hospitalized from Gas Station Cheese, CEO 'Praying for Individuals'


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A deadly botulism outbreak in Northern California appears to have stemmed from nacho cheese sauce sold at a gas station near Sacramento.

Thirty-seven-year-old Martin Galindo died after eating the tainted cheese.  The married father of two young boys owned his own construction company and stopped at the Valley Oak Food and Fuel in Walnut Grove on the way to a job site for a snack. 

His brother Mario told KTVU the entire family is grief-stricken. "He was a great brother, a great father, always great with the nephews, and his own kids." 

Botulism is a type of food poisoning.  According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,  it's usually associated with canned foods, specifically the "improper handling during manufacture, at retail, or by consumers."  About one-third of all botulism cases stem from home-canning.

Galindo was one of 10 people to have contracted botulism from the same gas station nacho cheese, according to the Sacramento Bee.  The nine others have been hospitalized. 

One of them is 33-year-old Sacramento mother Lavinia Kelly who is in intensive care after suffering paralysis and who needs a ventilator to breathe. "They've been taping her eyelids open so she can see her family when they visit," her attorney said, adding, "She knows what's going on and can't do anything about it. It's the most frightening thing you can imagine."

Kelly and at least five others are suing the gas station and Gehl Foods, the Wisconsin-based cheese manufacturer.   

California health officials say the cheese at the gas station tested positive for botulism.  The gas station stopped selling the product.  It's unclear at this time how the cheese was being stored and served.

"While there are still unanswered questions about this outbreak, these tragic illnesses are important reminders to be vigilant about food safety," California Public Health Officer Dr. Karen Smith said in a statement.

Gehl Foods' CEO Eric Beringhause said in a statement, "We are praying for the individuals battling the illness," adding his company is "working closely with authorities to determine what caused the outbreak on site."

He said his company tested samples from the lot of cheese from which the contamination occurred and those tests came back negative.  Just to make sure, they sent the cheese to an independent lab.  Those results were also negative. 

"Gehl's facilities remain safe for food production and all of our food samples continue to test negative for any contaminants," the statement continued. "There is no recall of Gehl's nacho cheese product."

The botulism toxin is odorless and tasteless.  
Symptoms include: 

  • difficulty breathing 
  • vomiting
  • blurry vision  
  • gradual paralysis 

Patients are being treated with an anti-toxin from the CDC.  They may spend weeks or months on ventilators and their paralysis can gradually disappear. 

The CDC says botulism has often been from home-canned foods with low acid content, such as asparagus, green beans, beets, and corn, and is caused by failure to follow proper canning methods.  
It recommends:

  • Keeping oils infused with garlic or herbs refrigerated.
  • Keeping potatoes which have been baked while wrapped in aluminum foil hot until served or refrigerated.
  • Boiling home-processed, low-acid and tomato canned foods in a saucepan for 10 minutes before serving, even if you detect no signs of spoilage.

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