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Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Why Botulism Shouldn't Keep You from Canning

Canning season has started in earnest, with the first batches of jam already safely stored away downstairs. This is always the point at which I go through my pantry, taking stock of what we need to eat soon, what I made too much of last year (and so should skip this year), and what we are totally out of.  It is also the point at which I inevitably discover the jars that got shoved into the corner and are now too old to be safe to eat.

This is discouraging enough, but once in a while, this clean-out procedure will turn up a jar with the lid button popped outward, indicating the seal has broken. Inevitably, people's minds turn immediately to botulism. And some people let this fear keep them from learning to can.

Botulism is not to be taken lightly.  Botulism is a paralytic nerve condition caused by the botulism bacterium, and you don't want to mess around with it. But inexperienced home canners sometimes want to avoid canning out of fear of botulism, and this is unfortunate.  So let me help put your mind at ease.

According the the CDC,  there are about 110 cases of botulism every year in the U.S.  About a quarter of these are foodborne.  That means that there are about 30 cases of foodborne botulism each year.

To put this in perspective, there are about 318 million people in the U.S. (Check this out. This is really cool.) If everyone is having an average of two meals a day and no snacks (to even out for infants who are nursed by their mothers, people with food insecurity, and others who may not be consuming food regularly), that's 636,000,000 meals.  And that generates about 30 cases of foodborne botulism, not all of which can be traced to home canning; botulism bacteria can infect factory-canned and -prepared foods too.

Ultimately, your chances of getting botulism from any food source or meal are extremely small.  Avoiding home canning because you are afraid of botulism is like not walking around your own yard because you're afraid a car could come careening off the road and kill you.  It's possible, but it isn't at all likely.

How can you further lower your risk of botulism if you are a nervous home canner?

  • Wash and sterilize all your jars before canning, even if you know they will go into a pressure canner (which should, theoretically, kill pretty much anything).  
  • Keep your hands and workspace scrupulously clean.  Wear a clean apron, use clean towels, and wipe up regularly.
  • Follow your canning recipe exactly.  Food preservation depends on some basic chemistry; if a recipe calls for a certain amount of sugar, vinegar, or other acidic element, it does so to kill bacteria.  Don't alter the recipe.
  • Use new canning lids if you use the disposable metal kind.
  • Process your canned goods for the amount of time specified in the recipe.  Don't skimp.  
  • Take a minute each season to refamiliarize yourself with your canning process before you begin, including reading the instructions on your pressure canner if you are using one.
  • Test completed jars for a seal.  The "button" in the center of the lid should be firmly down with no wobble.  If it isn't and you discover this within a few hours of processing, the food is usually safe to eat right away.
  • Let your jars sit out for a few days before storing, and retest the seal before you put them in the cabinet.  Store them in a cool, dark area.
  • Test your seal again before you open the jar.
  • Smell and examine your food when your jar is first opened.  Discard anything that seems wrong to you.  I've been canning for years, and I still occasionally get rid of a jar that was almost certainly safe but that looked a bit strange to me.  Usually it is just a question of food getting above the canning liquid and thus changing appearance during storage, but you never know.
  • If you have a jar that is sealed but past its "best by" date, you can empty the contents into compost and wash and sterilize the jar for reuse.  
  • If you have a jar that you have opened or you have reason to believe the seal was compromised, the safest thing is to throw the whole thing away.  Screw the lid back on with the band, wrap it in a couple of plastic bags, and send it out with the trash.  Don't dump suspicious contents into compost, because, on the off chance you really do have botulism bacteria present, you could accidentally poison a child or pet who came into contact with the food.  Go ahead and sacrifice the jar -- they make more.

Home canning is a great pleasure and a great money saver, giving you nutritious food year round.  Don't let the fear of botulism stop you from learning to can.  No one will take more care in providing quality food for your family than you will, and you can ensure safety by following proper procedures.  You can do this.
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