Introduction to canning

There are two distinct factions that show up in every canning group I have ever been in – those who believe improper canning will kill us all (and we must only use approved methods) and those who don’t care about approved methods.  This causes a lot of friction in the groups and confusion for those who haven’t found their place in either faction.

As you may have noticed, I belong in the second group.  I’m all about experimentation.  I grew up in the country.  We ate dirt and bugs and survived.  It was common for my mom to leave dinner out for us to snack on later or to eat for breakfast.  I still prefer to leave pizza out overnight for breakfast.  My mom talks about traveling all day in a hot car with potato salad – never killed them.

So what is the great fear that those in the first faction have – Botulism.  Botulism is the enemy of home preservation.  Botulism is, according to the CDC, a rare but serious paralytic illness caused by a nerve toxin that is produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum and sometimes by strains of Clostridium butyricum and Clostridium baratii.

Please note that Botulism is rare.  To me that is the most important word.

The CDC also says “From 1996 to 2008, there were 116 outbreaks of foodborne botulism reported to CDC. Of the 48 outbreaks that were caused by home-prepared foods, 18 outbreaks, or 38%, were from home-canned vegetables. These outbreaks often occur because home canners did not follow canning instructions, did not use pressure cookers, ignored signs of food spoilage, and were unaware of the risk of botulism from improperly preserving vegetables.”

Botulism is naturally occurring and is often already attached to the foods you are preparing.  If given time, it becomes infectious.  You are more likely to get E coli than botulism.

I like statistics so here are some that might help put this in perspective.  Now 2012 is the last year the CDC did a comprehensive report.  I don’t know if it’s because they changed their reporting or it just takes ages to get a new report out. (http://www.cdc.gov/nationalsurveillance/PDFs/Botulism_CSTE_2012.pdf)

In 2012, there were 160 confirmed cases of botulism.  Of those cases, the majority (122 cases) were infant botulism.  After some research, I discovered that the majority of infants consume the toxin through dust. http://www.infantbotulism.org/general/faq.php  Eight cases came from wounds that had been contaminated with the toxin and five cases came from unknown sources, leaving 25 cases in the foodborne category.

Now, 25 cases in the entire US for an entire year is still a pretty good statistic.  Out of the 160 initial cases, 2 died.  One of those deaths was under the foodborne category.  So 1 person in the whole US died from home canning in 2012.

Let’s break down the statistics even more.  The death was caused by home canned beets.  Two other people became sick and recovered from those same home canned beets.

The others that were infected:

2 – home canned pasta and meat sauce

1 – home canned green beans

1 – home fermented tofu

1 – home canned soup

1 – home canned tuna

1 – homemade garlic oil

1 – beaver tail

1 – stinkheads

1 – seal meat and fat

The remaining twelve became infected after consuming Pruno.  I had to look it up and, gross, it’s wine made from crap (basically).  It’s often referred to as prison wine – a mix of fruit and fruit based substances that are fermented to make an intoxicating drink.

In the end, eight people got sick in 2012 from home canning.  The foods that made them sick are on the riskier end of canning.

Am I worried about botulism – not really.  I find the risk to be so minimal and I feel exposure to microbes is, actually, good for your immune system.  I know that I don’t take risks that are unheard of.  I do some canning that is strange but, often, my recipes are real recipes.  I don’t consume overly risky foods.  I don’t eat out of jars that the seal broke and I have no idea how long it had been sitting there.  I don’t eat obviously spoiled foods.

I do expose myself to potential microbes.  As I said, we eat low risk foods that have been sitting out.  We eat our meat on the rarer side.  But we also strive to make sure our bodies are healthy.  We keep our digestive tracts healthy and happy.  All of that reduces our risk along with preserving our food sensibly.

If you are in good health and take reasonable risks then you should have no worries when it comes to canning.  Don’t let fear mongering prevent you from making your own food storage.