14 Food Safety Tips Prevent Botulism in Home Canned Foods
You may have heard about the recent botulism cases in Ohio. At this writing, 21 people have been infected with botulism resulting in one death. I don’t pretend to have any direct knowledge of this tragic event. Like you, I only know what I have read from local reports. My heart goes out to all those affected.
Homemade potato salad made from home canned potatoes is the current suspected mode of infection. As someone who loves homemade potato salad – and loathes the commercially prepared no real kind – and as a prolific home canner, I can relate to the fear this may be causing some of you. Botulism is a serious, scary infection. That said, botulism is not all that common and we can safely can at home. We don’t know what went wrong in Ohio, whether it was the canned potatoes or some other ingredient, but the event does make this a good time to brush up on some safe home canning tips.
1. Thoroughly clean your fruits/vegetables/meat/fish/etc. before starting the canning process.
2. Avoid cross contamination. For example, don’t cut up peaches and chicken on the same cutting board. Clean the cutting board with hot water and soap (and preferable sterilize) between uses. This is especially true if you cut the chicken up before the peaches. Also, don’t use the same knife to chop vegetables and anything else unless cleaned between uses.
3. Process low acid foods in a pressure canner. High acid foods may be processed in a water bath canner. Low acid foods are vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, and some fruits.
4. Some foods, like tomatoes, fall between high and low acid. That is why canned tomatoes require that lemon juice be added to each jar, assuring they are acid enough to kill harmful microorganisms.
5. When following an approved recipe, use the ingredients as noted. In other words, don’t add more onions to your salsa or substitute papaya for peaches in mixed fruit. It is usually ok to reduce low acid ingredients in mixtures, but must never use more low acid foods than the recipe calls for.
6. Cut the product to the correct size. Small carrots, beets or potatoes may be canned whole, but larger carrots, beets or potatoes must be cut into smaller pieces. This assures that the processing time and temperature are long enough to penetrate the food and kill all potential microorganisms.
7. Use clean jars with no cracks. Make sure the lids are clean too.
8. Check your pressure canner gauge before using. Check it every year. Pressure canner gauges often have to be adjusted. You have no way of knowing if yours is correct unless tested. An untested gauge could read incorrectly, meaning you are not canning with as much pressure as you think. If so, then the temperature is not as high as required for safety purposes. Gauges can be usually be checked at your county Extension office.
9. When using a water bath canner, keep the water boiling throughout the entire processing period. If you lose a boil the process time needs to be started over.
10. Process the jars for the entire recommended time. Some times have increased in recent years to much longer than those your mother or grandmother processed. Find a recent table at the National Center for Home Food Preservation or a recent Ball Blue Book.
11. After processing and before storing, check that the jar is sealed.
12. Before serving your home canned delicacy, check that the jar hasn’t lost its seal.
13. When opening the jar, check for signs of spoilage like bubbling liquid, food discoloration, or a foul smell. If in doubt, throw it out!
14. If you aren’t feeling confident about canning low acid foods you can still preserve your harvest. Explore other preservation methods. For example, I prefer frozen or pickled green beans over canned green beans any day. Potatoes and carrots can be sliced and dried meat can be made into jerky.
Looking for more food safety and home canning tips? Download a copy of The Confident Canner and get answers to all your canning questions. It’s like having your grandmother by your side giving advice!
Find out more about botulism at this older post, Botulism – Not an Old Wives’ Tale.
Don’t fear potato salad, but do follow safe canning processes.