jamjars1 Between recession and home-cooking renaissance, canning is making a comeback.

You can join in with a national “Cans Across America” event Aug. 29-30, spearheaded by some of our own Seattleites. Or, get an in-depth head start with a series of canning classes in Everett, offered by the WSU Snohomish County extension. 

Plenty of people have avoided canning because they’re afraid of risking botulism. Until recently, that category included me. I only canned my first tomatoes last year, taking a WSU King County Extension class to gain confidence, due to my acute… ah… awareness of food safety. As I wrote then, in my childhood home “any word association game would have paired “pork” in the same column as “trichinosis,” and the words “canned mushrooms” would logically have been followed by the term “botulism.”

I’ve had the canning bug since, moving on to jams and other preserves and pickles, reveling in the classic “ping” of a jar lid and the recipes of mavens like Marisa McClellan. But, as I’ve grown more comfortable with the safety procedures myself, I’ve started wondering: Is botulism really that prevalent? Do I need to wash my jars in hot soapy water AND sterilize them in boiling water AND dry them in an oven at the appropriate temperature AND add the proper amount of acidifying ingredients AND process them for the recommended length of time in boiling water? 

I don’t want to fool around with anything marked “fatal nerve toxin,” of course, but I also wondered how significant the risk is. While we do hear about occasional botulism cases –a nurse and her young children dangerously sickened by green beans this year, for instance — we hear about far more deaths from e. coli and salmonella and listeriosis. I don’t hear a lot about death by jam.

Checking in with the experts, here’s what I learned:

Elizabeth Andress, project director at the National Center for Home Food Preservation, noted that there were 160 botulism outbreaks from 1990-2000 in the U.S., affecting 263 people. Most of those cases came from home canning. Alaska, a unique case given the traditions of its native population, accounted for 103 of the 263 cases, the bulk of those coming from foods (such as fish or seal oil) that were fermented at room temperature and eaten without cooking, fairly major no-nos. 

That leaves 160 cases over the decade for the other 49 states. Non-commercial food processsing accounted for 91 percent of those cases, and  the most common cause (44 percent) was home-canned vegetables.

“The causes were foods like improperly home canned asparagus, home canned tuna, home canned peppers, home canned beets, and other home preparation methods of mushrooms, olives, garlic in oil, etc.  So it CAN happen and does happen,” Andress wrote in an e-mail. 

The raw numbers are not large. But it is not difficult to can food safely, Andress wrote, and the consequences are so severe, it’s important to respect the science behind canning recommendations and use appropriately researched methods.

The point, noted Ben Chapman, assistant professor and food safety extension specialist at North Carolina State University, is that all those cases were preventable

“I don’t think we’re overblown on the risks of botulism,” the BarfBlog contributor said by phone today.  It wouldn’t surprise Chapman, in fact, if we saw an increase in the rates from the large influx of people now trying out canning for the first time “and not using tested recipes and not using the right equipment and not knowing where to go.” There are still risky recipes floating around, he noted — even as high a food authority as Mark Bittman slipped up recently with a “nasty” New York Times recipe for garlic-infused oil that initially carried a botulism risk.

But Chapman does note — and for me, this is key — that botulism is an issue with low-acid foods, meaning meats and vegetables. Those are foods I’ve personally chosen not to can, as I haven’t invested in the pressure canner required for low-acid recipes and I don’t feel idiot-proof enough to put my life on the line for even an infinitesmal risk.

For the fruit jams that I have favored, all my overkill efforts (looks like I don’t need to sterilize the jars first for recipes that are processed more than 1o minutes) are chiefly going toward keeping the best quality foods for the longest period of time possible. “If you mess that up, you might get spoilage, and it’s a waste of your time,” Chapman said, but properly acidified foods like pickles and high-acid foods like fruits aren’t botulism risks.

My own conclusion? Put together the large numbers of people canning at home — I find it hard to believe it’s one out of four households, but it’s a lot —  with the general imperfection of human beings, and the small number of U.S. botulism cases, and it’s hard for to believe that botulism is lurking under every lid. Still, all my years of cops reporting left me well aware that the worst does happen, and that low odds are very different from no odds. I’ll still personally avoid canning vegetables and meats. And I’ll still take all the recommended precautions, of course, with my fruits. But I think my state of mind will be more relaxed, even if my standards stay the same.

Zena Edwards, a WSU food safety specialist who generally refers people to the Center for Home Preservation for great safety tutorials and online videos, made some other excellent points. One of them is to consider freezing to preserve your food, which doesn’t carry a botulism risk and leaves some people happier with the quality of the final product. “Sometimes I think people take up canning with the thought that it will be less expensive than buying food.  After purchasing the (pressure) canner, jars, food and counting your time it often isn’t the best value.  But some people want to be more connected with their food, so more power to them!  I think they just need to be honest with themselves about the true costs.”

For canning safety, she also noted, “(C)anning batch after batch can lead to fatigue and cuttting corners (we are only human, after all). A colleague of mine suggested spacing out canning sessions over several weeks if possible instead going gangbusters all at once. Good advice…especially for the person just learning the ropes.”

Enjoy canning, can safely, and watch this space and this space for news of “Can-volution” events and ways to learn more.

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