Common mistakes the media make when talking about home canning

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At the end of every summer, or whenever there’s a health incident related to home canning, someone in media with little experience in the field draws the short straw and gets assigned to do a story about home canning.

The resulting stories usually leave pro’s in the field cringing and tearing at their eyeballs trying to unsee what they just read.

Common media mistakes

Here are some common mistakes, listed in no particular order.

 

Calling it a “pressure cooker” instead of a “pressure canner”.

Calling it a “pressure cooker” signals that the person you are interviewing is giving scary advice, or, that you didn’t pay close attention. Either way, it scares people. If it’s a pressure canner, call it a pressure canner. If it’s not, it shouldn’t be used for canning, and it’s a risk to public health and safety to promote its use. See: Pressure cooker vs pressure canner.

 

Calling it bottling

Bottling is just sticking things in a jar and whacking a lid on. There’s no canning happening there. Canning is when the filled and closed jar is then heat treated to sterlize the contents. If there’s no heat treatment happening of food in a sealed container, then no canning is happening.

 

Pickling is not the same as canning

Pickling is acidifying something enough to pickle it.

Canning is the act of heat processing food items in a sealed canister in order to apply the required amount of sterilization for that food item. The food items may be pickled or not pickled.

Pickling on its own is not enough to ensure 100% safe, shelf-stable secure storage. To be shelf-stable and guaranteed safe, a pickled item also needs to be canned inside a canister of some sort. If it’s not canned, it needs to be stored in a very cold place, such as a refrigerator or failing that, a very cold cellar.

Pickling does not kill “botulism”. The acidity involved in pickling prevents botulism spores from germinating and releasing their toxin into the food item provided the acidity is high enough (4.6 pH or lower), and provided that acidity is not lost owing to the growth of moulds, etc. Properly canning the pickled item prevents that acidity loss during shelf storage.

 

Blindly citing home canning as the leading cause of botulism, because someone tells you it is

It’s not. In descending order, here are the common causes of botulism as documented by the CDC.

  • Infant botulism (65 %)
  • Wound botulism (20 %)
  • Foodborne (15 %)

Here’s how the 15% of foodborne breaks down since 1990:

  • 11%: Commercially prepared and purchased food OR Improperly handled ordinary cooking in a domestic situation
  • 4%:  Improper home canning

While no amount of botulism from whatever cause is acceptable, the numbers reveal that commercially prepared food, or poor food handling, is actually more dangerous than home-canned food.

 

 

Extolling years and experience as a magic bullet

Canning is a science, our understanding of which is constantly evolving. You wouldn’t extol the nostalgic benefits of someone performing mediaeval dentistry on your aching tooth. How is it intellectually consistent then to extol a canning practice that has been lab-certified to be dangerous since Truman was President?

In home canning, best practices for “safety” cannot be based on a personal experience of what has worked out okay for one person’s family over the years. Recommendations can only be based on cold, hard facts coming out of research-based trials by trained people. Good, safe canners are constantly updating their knowledge, and will tell you what they learnt recently, not what they learnt second-hand 30 years ago.

Dr Elizabeth Andress, head of the National Center for Home Food Preservation, says:

Too many people probably consider themselves experts about food safety based on their own experiences. I like being able to teach people that there are scientific principles at play that can be learned…”1

 

Not mentioning the National Center for Home Food Preservation

All canning pieces should contain a mention or a link pointing people to the National Center for Home Food Preservation, for safe, up-to-date canning advice. Failing that, a link to Ball (or Bernardin for Canada), is acceptable.

 

Mistaking a chef as a reputable source of home canning recipes

Cooking and canning are very different practices. Cooking is an art and there’s a lot of room in it for mistakes and correcting them on the fly. Food preservation, however, is a science, and mistakes can be punished with severe, life-threatening consequences. There’s no room for ego or personality, and little if any room for creativity. Do not assume that just because someone calls themselves a “chef” (and who doesn’t these days? no one’s just a “cook” anymore) that they know about modern, safe home canning procedures for you to pass onto your audience. Home canning is a completely separate set of skills to be studied and learned. Just because someone can sew doesn’t make them a surgeon.

They should tell you that they are following guidance provided by a reputable source such as Ball, Bernardin, the USDA, the National Center, or a local Extension Office. If they aren’t citing such a reputable source, or are dismissive of such, you’re talking to the wrong person.

 

A sealed lid equals safety

Does a sealed lid on a jar mean it’s safe?  We’ll let Washington State University Extension Service handle this answer:

Absolutely not. The sealed lid on a canning jar simply keeps the food safe. Safety of the contents depends on having a recipe that was developed and tested for canning, accompanied by a processing time in either the boiling water canner or pressure canner, which provides the heat necessary to create a shelf stable product. Processing times for foods are determined by scientists under laboratory conditions.

There are several critical measurements done in the laboratory, including water activity, pH, and the rate of heat penetration. All are factors used to determine the thermal death time curve (TDT) for each product. This data is used to establish a processing time for the food. The sealing of the lid simply indicates the oxygen has been vented out of the canning jar and a vacuum seal has been created. In other words, the processing makes it safe, the seal simply keeps it safe.”2

 

Seeking false balance

False balance in home canning reporting occurs when reporters feel they should treat one person’s opinion or experience as having just as much validity as decades of research-based, scientifically documented evidence from all the reputable sources in the home canning field.

The Toronto Star recently addressed the topic of “false balance” in reporting in general:

First, the [Canadian National NewsMedia Council] indicated that fair and accurate reporting on some subjects … need not engage in what is known in journalism as ‘false balance’ – that is, a perceived need for journalists to seek out ‘the other side’ of a controversial issue when the overwhelming scientific consensus strongly supports one side. False balance wrongly seeks to provide equal weight to two sides of an argument when in fact the evidence-based information indicates there is no real argument.”3

 

What’s new?

See here for a quick overview of homecanning news in a timeline format.

 

Go to the top for the best information

If you want a good interview, consider going to the top.

In the States, that’s someone such as Elizabeth Andress at the National Center, or Barb Ingham at the University of Wisconsin; Jessica Piper at Ball often makes herself available as well. For local angles, look for Master Food Preservers groups in your area. Many of them congregate on Facebook, such as the UCCE Master Food Preservers of El Dorado County , and one group can direct you to another.

In Canada, that’s Emerie Brine at Bernardin, though there’s a reasonable chance the National Center would help you out as well.

These people almost certainly would jump at the chance to help get some safe home canning advice out there to counter some of the bad, dangerous advice being passed on unwittingly by the media today.


  1. University of Georgia, Focus on Faculty: Elizabeth Andress. 29 Sept. 2013.  Accessed September 2016. 

  2. Washington State University Extension Service. WSU Extension Q&A. Kennewick, Washington: Tri-City Herald. 31 July 2016. Accessed October 2016 at http://www.tri-cityherald.com/living/home-garden/article92516402.html 

  3. English, Kathy. There’s no need for ‘false balance’ in news reports: Public Editor. Toronto: Toronto Star. 16 Sept 2016. 

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