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A microbiologist on honey danger

17 August 2012


From Dr Jean M. Bradley
Sir, - The statement in Miss Clark's letter ( Letters, 3 August) that honey "is full of botulinum toxin, and poisonous to babies", thus suggesting that the Revd Aidan Coleman's "non-baptismal" blessing of a baby by administering a little honey on the lip ( News, 20 July) is a dangerous practice, cannot go unchallenged.

Among the NHS Guidelines to mothers for weaning young babies is the suggestion that it is "best not to give your child honey until they are one year old". This has been interpreted as proscriptive.

In the UK, infant botulism is an extremely rare disease: 13 cases, none fatal, were reported between 1975 and 2011; admittedly, the incidence is somewhat higher in some other countries. It is caused by ingestion, from the environment or from food, of the fairly ubitiquous spores of Clostridium botulinum: two cases were associated with keeping terrapins as pets. In most cases, the source was not identified. Until the infant has developed a normal protective gut bacterial flora, ingested spores can germinate in the child's intestine and there produce a neurotoxin that, when absorbed from the gut, is responsible for the condition.

It is utterly false and misleading to state that honey is "full of botulinum toxin". Many of us would not want to deprive our children or grandchildren totally of a small amount of this natural, agreeable foodstuff, nor discourage, on dubious health grounds, Mr Coleman's extension of liturgical practice.

Consultant microbiologist (retired)
East Coker, Hook Lane
Chichester PO20 3SR

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