Botulism linked to baked potato, Meaford man on life support after visit to restaurant

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By Roberta Avery SPECIAL TO THE STAR MEAFORD A 35-year-old father of two remains on life support in an Owen Sound hospital two months after he took a bite out of a baked potato at a Meaford restaurant.

Mark Barley, who fell ill from botulism that left him almost totally paralyzed and caused him temporarily to lose much of his vision, is the first person in Canada believed to have contracted the disease from a baked potato.

Health Canada has issued a warning that storing potatoes baked in aluminum foil at room temperature may cause the potentially life-threatening disease.

"He's able to blink and squeeze my hand, but that's about it," Mark Barley's wife Judy said yesterday.

Unable to breathe on his own, Mark, a once burly construction worker who loved to ski, is connected to a ventilator and tubes feed nourishment directly into his stomach.

The Barleys moved in 1999 from Scarborough to the Georgian Bay community of Meaford with their two children Samantha, 10, and DJ, 6.

They bought a dilapidated home in a quiet residential street and settled down to enjoy life in small-town Ontario. Mark spent every spare minute renovating their home and by this July was working on the kitchen.

"That's why we went out for dinner that night," said Judy Barley.

They chose the Harbour Moose, a newly opened restaurant on Meaford's waterfront, where Mark, who hadn't eaten all day, ordered a steak and baked potato. The rest of the family had French fries.

"As the waiter served Mark's meal I noticed a horrible smell, but a group of people were walking by and I associated it with them," said Judy.

After a few mouthfuls her husband realized something was terribly wrong. He complained and was given a complimentary meal by the restaurant.

The next morning when Mark complained of blurred vision and his speech started to slur, Judy, fearing food poisoning, typed his symptoms into an Internet search engine and botulism came up right away.

Mark was taken immediately to the local hospital, where his condition continued to deteriorate. He was airlifted to London's University Hospital and put on a ventilator because he was unable to breathe on his own. He spent seven weeks there before being transferred to the Grey Bruce Regional Health Centre in Owen Sound.

Botulism develops in 12 to 36 hours and as Barley hadn't eaten anything all the day before he got sick, the focus of the investigation was the potato.

Health Canada spokesperson Margot Geduld said that while it's impossible to determine the exact cause, Barley's condition has been "linked (by the local health unit) back to a baked potato eaten in a restaurant on July 26."

Dave Simmons, owner of the Harbour Moose, said the Barley family did eat at his restaurant on July 26 and that Mark Barley complained about his baked potato.

"My heart goes out to that family, it's a terrible thing that has happened to them, but we're caught in the crossfire too," said Simmons.

The Grey Bruce Health Unit closed the restaurant down for four hours on July 28, but allowed it to reopen when conditions were found to be satisfactory, said Simmons, showing the health inspection report.

The health unit has conducted numerous spot searches since and has not found any fault with the restaurant's handling of baked potatoes, said Simmons.

Irina Frenkel, a food safety specialist at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency, said vegetables and fruit, particularly those grown in soil, can contain botulism spores.

Potatoes, if left in foil after baking, provide ideal conditions for the spores to germinate if they are stored at room temperature.

"If they are unwrapped and exposed to the air and kept refrigerated, the spores won't grow," said Frenkel.

Geduld said there are typically about 10 cases of botulism in Canada every year, usually among native people who eat seal meat and fish roe.

"As far as we know, this is the first case in Canada linked to a baked potato," she said.

The only other known case in North America was in Texas in 1994, when about 30 people contracted botulism from foil-wrapped baked potatoes stored at room temperature, said Geduld.

The Meaford community is rallying to help the Barley family. A benefit dance will be held at the Meaford Legion on Oct.19 and a trust account has been set up at the local ScotiaBank branch.

-- Anonymous, September 26, 2002


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