Botulinum neurotoxin (BoNT) is the most toxic substance known to man and the causative agent of botulism. Due to its high toxicity and the availability of the producing organism Clostridium botulinum, BoNT is regarded as a potential biological warfare agent. Because of the mild pasteurization process, as well as rapid product distribution and consumption, the milk supply chain has long been considered a potential target of a bioterrorist attack. Since, to our knowledge, no empirical data on the inactivation of BoNT in milk during pasteurization are available at this time, we investigated the activities of BoNT type A (BoNT/A) and BoNT/B, as well as their respective complexes, during a laboratory-scale pasteurization process. When we monitored milk alkaline phosphatase activity, which is an industry-accepted parameter of successfully completed pasteurization, our method proved comparable to the industrial process. After heating raw milk spiked with a set amount of BoNT/A or BoNT/B or one of their respective complexes, the structural integrity of the toxin was determined by enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) and its functional activity by mouse bioassay. We demonstrated that standard pasteurization at 72 degrees C for 15 s inactivates at least 99.99% of BoNT/A and BoNT/B and at least 99.5% of their respective complexes. Our results suggest that if BoNTs or their complexes were deliberately released into the milk supply chain, standard pasteurization conditions would reduce their activity much more dramatically than originally anticipated and thus lower the threat level of the widely discussed "BoNT in milk" scenario.
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