11 February 2014

Halfway through our home-canned vegetables, and not dead of botulism yet

As winter trundles along, the household has worked about halfway through the jars of green beans and carrots and soup mix that I home-canned in 2013. I've found it super-easy to cook up some pasta in broth, dump a jar of vegetables into the pot, and have soup on the table in under 15 minutes. Or I'll start some beans in the slow cooker in the morning, drop in a quart of vegetables and some seasonings when we get home from work and school, and have soup once it's all warmed through.

It has become clear to me that my pressure canning efforts in 2013 left my menu planning options skewed toward the soup end of the spectrum. I could be disappointed at the lack of variety, I guess. But the soup has been awesome when we come inside from the lousy, snowy winter days we've been having this year.

With half the jars gone off the shelf, two things come to mind. One, I am loving the result of the corn kernels in the soup mix quarts. I'm reminded of how much I loved canned corn when I was a kid, growing up on the standard American dinner of meat, two veggies, and a starch on my plate. I'm going to keep an eye out for a deal on sweet corn this summer and I hope to do at least one good canner load of pints.

Two, I wish I'd done winter squash again! It was a real treat to have those six quarts on my shelves all last winter. And it would have been nice to have another option on the vegetable shelf: in the end, there's really not much difference between a pint of green beans and a pint of soup mix.

But my point, and I had one when I started this post, was to talk about botulism. The risk of killing everyone at your table with botulism is the terrible bogeyman of home canning vegetables and other low-acid foods. When you open your jars, you can't smell it! You can't see it! But if it's there, it'll paralyze and kill you all! Scary!

What's the actual risk, though? I mean, if you keep a reasonably clean kitchen, start with excellent-quality foods, use laboratory-tested recipes, and follow your canner manufacturer's instructions? As it turns out . . .  the risk is pretty darn low.

And it's been steadily low and dropping in the past decade, at least in the U.S. For example, in 2011, the CDC collected 140 cases of botulism poisoning nationally (PDF). Of those 140, only 20 were cases involving food. Of those 20, 8 were cases involving "pruno," or prison-made home-brew alcohol. Of the 12 cases left over, only two involved home-canned food.

In 2011, there were more cases of botulism resulting from injecting drugs than from consuming home-canned food.

Nowadays, some 20% of American households put home-canned foods on their pantry shelves, and 65% of these dedicated food preservers home-can vegetables. I'm sure these numbers range from off-the-grid homesteaders to tiny-batch hobbyists; but whatever their level of commitment to putting food by, if there are 115,226,802 households in the U.S., and a fifth of them home-can foods, and 65% of that fifth home-can vegetables, and we average 2.61 people per household, then over 39 million Americans are consuming home-canned vegetables every year. Of those 39 million, two suffered botulism poisoning in 2011; neither case was fatal.

So your risk of botulism poisoning from home-canned food is about two in 39 million -- very close to just one in 20 million. By contrast, there were nearly 50,000 reported cases of Salmonella in 2009 (PDF), and 621 cases of Listeria in 2011 (PDF).

There have been outbreaks, and the risk is real. But botulism is very rare and it doesn't just happen out of nowhere. When it happens in home-canned foods, it's because of a lack of care and education. In the outbreaks reported at that NIH link there, "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 consuming improperly preserved vegetables." Arguably, Salmonella and Listeria are harder to avoid than botulism, since they could come to your table in, say, prepared food from a deli, or even fresh fruit from the supermarket.

The take-away here at Rowhouse Livin'? Stay healthy (or, in our case, appreciate and cultivate the general good health that we're blessed to have). Eat well. Exercise some. Keep a clean kitchen. And keep on home-canning vegetables.

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