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
- 1.1 Calling it a “pressure cooker” instead of a “pressure canner”.
- 1.2 Calling it bottling
- 1.3 Calling home canning an art
- 1.4 Pickling is not the same as canning
- 1.5 Blindly citing home canning as the leading cause of botulism, because someone tells you it is
- 1.6 Extolling years and experience as a magic bullet
- 1.7 Not mentioning the National Center for Home Food Preservation
- 1.8 Mistaking a chef as a reputable source of home canning recipes
- 1.9 A sealed lid equals safety
- 1.10 Giving credence to “heritage”, hand-me down canning recipes and methods
- 1.11 Seeking false balance
- 2 What’s new?
- 3 Go to the top for the best information
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.
Calling home canning an art
While cooking may be an art, home canning is not: it’s a science. The contents of those jars have to be appropriately sterilized to ensure food safety. The recommendations for doing this literally arise out of evidence-based research in science labs to ensure the safest, highest-quality products possible in our error-prone home kitchens. And just as in any other aspect of science, our understanding of the science is constantly evolving, which is why a key recommendation is to avoid “heritage” canning recipes, and to use only modern, up-to-date ones instead.
And come to think of it, not all of cooking is an art, either: there’s a heck of a lot of science that goes into baking!
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
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, former head of the National Center for Home Food Preservation, said:
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…” University of Georgia, Focus on Faculty: Elizabeth Andress. 29 Sept. 2013. Accessed September 2016.
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.” Washington State University Extension Service. WSU Extension Q&A. Kennewick, Washington: Tri-City Herald. 31 July 2016. Accessed October 2016 at https://www.tri-cityherald.com/living/home-garden/article92516402.html
Giving credence to “heritage”, hand-me down canning recipes and methods
Dentistry and surgery have changed; no one today would want 1920s knowledge used on treating them. The science behind home canning has evolved as well since the days of our great-grandmothers in order to ensure food safety. Many hand-me down recipes and techniques from earlier eras are now known to be home versions of Russian roulette: just a matter of time before your luck runs out. And even making those recipes “with love” does not make them any safer.
Above all remember, our great-grandmothers would have always wanted to assure themselves they were using the latest and greatest knowledge for both quality and safety. If food is not safe, it is not food.
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 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.” English, Kathy. There’s no need for ‘false balance’ in news reports: Public Editor. Toronto: Toronto Star. 16 Sept 2016.
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 Dr Carla Schwan at the National Center ( https://nchfp.uga.edu/contact_more_info.html); 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 who gets back you fast, and one group can direct you to another.
In Canada, check with Bernardin for local angles (https://www.bernardin.ca/en/contact-bernardin.htm), though there’s a reasonable chance the National Center would help you out as well on big-picture safety stuff.
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 https://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.|