How I Learned to Stop Worrying (About Botulism) and Love to Can

Long-time blog readers will remember my first foray into home canning last year, and the crash course I ended up receiving in pectin.

Since then, I’ve gotten a lot more comfortable using waterbath canning to help preserve items from my garden, and have gotten a “feel” for when things are going well, and when I need to make a couple mid-process adjustments to make sure I get the result I’m looking for.

However, if you were to just do a quick internet search about how to get started in canning, you would find many articles that would tell you that I’m an idiot for EVER making adjustments to a “standard tested canning recipe” and that I am risking a painful death by botulism for myself and anyone else I’ve ever bestowed my homecanned goods on.

And I was worried too, at first. The articles sounds so scary! But after a while, I began to get more skeptical…if you can only ever use long-tested canning recipes, then how do people ever come up with new recipes? How come I’ve never heard of anyone – a friend, or a friend of a friend – coming down with botulism poisoning even though I know a lot of people who home can?

So I looked up the statistics.  In 2014, the most recent year in which a study is available, the CDC reported that there were:

  • 161 laboratory-confirmed and 16 probable cases of botulism
    • Infant botulism accounted for 128 (80%) of the lab confirmed cases
    • Lab confirmed wound botulism caused 16 (10%) of the lab confirmed cases
    • Probable would botulism accounted for 11 (69%) of the probable cases

So that leaves us with 22 cases of confirmed or probable food-borne botulism a year. (And 2014 wasn’t an outlier, these numbers are pretty average.)  Of food-borne cases, home-canning actually accounts for an even smaller percentage of the cases (in 2014, only 2 of the 22 cases were blamed on home-canning.)

But let’s go ahead and say, for purposes of exaggeration, that ALL the reported cases were caused by home canning.  According to the Center for Food Security and Public Health, the mortality rate for food borne botulism cases in developed countries is between 5-10%. That means, even if ALL the food borne botulism was caused by home canning, only 2 people in the ENTIRE country would be like to encounter a fatal dose of botulism from home canned food. That’s out of a population of roughly 320 million. Or a 0.00000000625% chance.

This means, you have a better chance of:

  • being struck by lightning (source)
  • being trampled by cows (source)
  • being killed by a falling icicle (source)
  • drowning in your own bath tub (source)

…than you do of being killed from botulism in home-canned goods.

Now, that’s not to say you shouldn’t take precautions when canning. Understanding how ph levels work, and that you need to stay below a certain range (4.4 or so) for waterbath canned goods, is important (and helps keep these overall statistics so low).

But minor variations to existing recipes is not likely to hurt anyone, and so if fear of poisoning your whole family is what’s keeping you from canning, I’m happy to tell you that’s no longer an excuse.