Cautionary Tale Reminds Us To Follow Current Food Preservation Guidelines

Photo courtesy of the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

This is a story about Elmer. Elmer saved his life by not eating his vegetables. There’s more to the story, of course.

According to a 1931 North Dakota news article, Elmer attended a winter party where a salad was served. The salad featured home-canned vegetables, and most people enjoyed a portion. Elmer didn’t like vegetables, so he bypassed the salad.

Within a week of the party, 13 people died and the salad was implicated. The cause of death was botulism, a type of foodborne illness often linked to food improperly canned at home.

Blurred or double vision is a hallmark sign of botulism. Besides vision problems, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing and muscle weakness can occur 18 to 36 hours after eating foods contaminated with the toxin.

Without treatment, the illness can progress from head to feet, weakening muscles and potentially paralyzing your respiratory system. Death can occur without prompt treatment.

At the time of the tragedy, little research had been done in the area of home canning. In earlier generations, people did not have access to research-based recipes, pressure canners and other equipment we have today. During World War II, canning researchers provided safe methods of canning food, and research on safe home food preservation continues today.

Take precautions when preserving food. Unfortunately, some of the “old” methods of food preservation still are available in outdated cookbooks and on websites that are not backed up by scientific research.

If you are a vegetable gardener with a surplus of fresh produce, enjoy your delicious harvest right now and later this year. Be aware of the most recent guidance for safe food preservation available from reliable sources, such as Cooperative Extension, the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Ball Co.

Recommended Canning Methods

Pressure canning is recommended for low-acid foods. Low-acid foods are not acidic enough to prevent the growth of bacteria and should be processed at temperatures of 240 to 250 F, which is attainable with pressure canners.

Low-acid foods include red meats, seafood, poultry, milk and all fresh vegetables except for most tomatoes. These foods have a pH value higher than 4.6. Mixtures of low-acid and acidic foods also have pH values above 4.6 unless their recipes include enough lemon juice, citric acid or vinegar to make them acidic.

Boiling water-bath canners, which reach a temperature of 212 F, can be used to preserve acidic foods such as fruits, pickles, jams and jellies. The microorganism that causes botulism does not survive in an acidic environment.

Learn More

For more information about pressure canning, view this document:

For more information about using a boiling water-bath canner, view this document.

NDSU Extension Service food preservation publications