Pump up the jam: the consequences of unsafe canning

Canning wasn’t always my thing. Before arriving at N.C State, I didn’t know a whole lot about it (other than the results). I like food, nerdy trends and science and have since embraced the world of home preservation. I even have a t-shirt to prove it (Pump up the Jam, right, exactly as shown).

I’ve made pickles, jams, green beans, tomatoes, tomato sauces and a bunch of other stuff over the past couple of years. I’m not a seasoned veteran yet, but I’m trying. I figure that it’s important to know a bit about what folks might be calling me about and where they might go wrong.  The philosophy I follow when it comes to providing food safety information is to share risks and provide risk-reduction strategies — I don’t answer whether something is safe or not, and I don’t tell folks what they should do. I talk a lot about consequences, evidence and options.

One of the best risk-based resources out there to provide evidence and options is the National Center for Home Food Preservation run by my friend Elizabeth Andress at the University of Georgia. Elizabeth and her team provide the science for every best practice they produce – and are happy to share data or say where data doesn’t exist. Good communication comes from this open sharing of work.

With home food preservation of low acid foods (like veggies and meats), the consequences of not following evidence-based practices are catastrophic. It’s not just a bit of diarrhea or vomit; paralysis, leading to long-term heath problems and death are the norm, not the exception.

Earlier this year a couple of folks were paralyzed after eating improperly stored commercial soups (that hadn’t been acidified to reduce the outgrowth of botilinum toxin and required refrigeration). In the December issue of Journal of Food Protection, three outbreaks of foodborne botulism linked to home canned vegetables are detailed — including the foods, the practices and correct risk-reduction strategies.

Stuff like this is invaluable for food safety communication and extension-types.

Three outbreaks of foodborne botulism caused by unsafe home canning of vegetables—Ohio and Washington, 2008 and 2009
Journal of Food Protection®, Volume 74, Number 12, December 2011 , pp. 2090-2096(7)
Date, Kashmira; Fagan, Ryan; Crossland, Sandra; MacEachern, Dorothy; Pyper, Brian; Bokanyi, Rick; Houze, Yolanda; Andress, Elizabeth; Tauxe, Robert
Foodborne botulism is a potentially fatal paralytic illness caused by ingestion of neurotoxin produced by the spore-forming bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Historically, home-canned vegetables have been the most common cause of botulism outbreaks in the United States. During 2008 and 2009, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and state and local health departments in Ohio and Washington State investigated three outbreaks caused by unsafe home canning of vegetables. We analyzed CDC surveillance data for background on food vehicles that caused botulism outbreaks from 1999 to 2008. For the three outbreaks described, patients and their family members were interviewed and foods were collected. Laboratory testing of clinical and food samples was done at the respective state public health laboratories. From 1999 to 2008, 116 outbreaks of foodborne botulism were reported. Of the 48 outbreaks caused by home-prepared foods from the contiguous United States, 38% (18) were from home-canned vegetables. Three outbreaks of Type A botulism occurred in Ohio and Washington in September 2008, January 2009, and June 2009. Home-canned vegetables (green beans, green bean and carrot blend, and asparagus) served at family meals were confirmed as the source of each outbreak. In each instance, home canners did not follow canning instructions, did not use pressure cookers (canners? -ben), ignored signs of food spoilage, and were unaware of the risk of botulism from consuming improperly preserved vegetables. Home-canned vegetables remain a leading cause of foodborne botulism. These outbreaks illustrate critical areas of concern in current home canning and food preparation knowledge and practices. Similar gaps were identified in a 2005 national survey of U.S. adults. Botulism prevention efforts should include targeted educational outreach to home canners.