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Toxic tofu suspected in botulism outbreak

One person remains hospitalized after a rare outbreak of botulism in New York City.

One person remains hospitalized after a rare outbreak of botulism in New York City, according to the health department, which is investigating a possible tofu link to the illness.

Two people contracted the serious disease after buying tofu from the same store in Flushing, according to health officials. One of the two who became ill was released from the hospital during the weekend, but the other person remains under medical care, a city Department of Health spokeswoman told Metro.

Both patients are Chinese-speaking Queens residents and had recently purchased fresh bulk tofu, which sat out at room temperature at the store. That kind of tofu is commonly sold in an open, water-filled bin, and is often made into a popular Chinese dish known as fermented or "stinky" tofu.

Officials say the tofu sold was not made at the store, and they are currently trying to determine where it was made and how it was distributed.

Caused by an extremely potent toxin, botulism is a very rare but serious foodborne illness. The last time a case was reported in New York City was 15 years ago, say health officials.

The toxin affects the body's nervous system, and symptoms include blurred or double vision, weakness or paralysis, poor reflexes, difficulty swallowing and speaking, and difficulty breathing.

Symptoms of foodborne botulism usually occur 12 to 36 hours after ingestion, but may take several days. If left untreated, botulism can be fatal.

As the investigation continues, health experts are warning New Yorkers not to buy and to throw away all fresh bulk tofu that has been kept at room temperature. Even cooking this type of tofu is not a definite safeguard against botulism, as the organism's spores can still remain in the food. Once brought home, fresh tofu should always be kept refrigerated, health experts said. Prepackaged tofu products which are refrigerated are still safe.