Food for Thought: ‘Mom always did it this way’ or “better safe than sorry’

Home supervisor showing a Farm Security Administration borrower how to use a pressure cooker in 1941. Photo by John Vachon.

By Nancy Schuster
Frontier Extension District

“My grandma and my mom always canned this way” are the nine most disliked words in my vocabulary! The world of 2016 is a different world when compared to the 30s, 40s and 50s. Technology has advanced, medical knowledge has advanced, research has advanced, the entire world has advanced, and yet home canners believe they can process food safely the way their grandmothers did in the 1930s.

It isn’t grandma’s world anymore. In 2015, at a church dinner, 21 people were put into the hospital, another 10 went to the hospital showing symptoms of botulism poisoning, and one person died. The cause? Improperly home canned potatoes that were used to make a potato salad. The home canner responsible did not know how to process the low acid potatoes properly; she didn’t know anything about botulism; she just continued to can like mom and grandma always did. She now has to live with this fact: One person dead and 31 hospitalized, all because of her potato salad.

foodforthoughtIn today’s world there are all kinds of immunodeficiency disorders (the immune system’s ability to fight infectious disease is compromised or entirely absent) and autoimmune diseases (your immune system attacks healthy cells) that weaken our bodies, making it difficult to survive food borne illnesses. It’s hard to recognize these individuals; they look healthy and normal! Cancer survivors continue to increase in numbers as well as those individuals who have survived some type of heart surgery. Their bodies are weak in terms of fighting off a food borne illness. It’s not grandma’s world anymore.

Green beans are currently ready to pressure can; and I have only tested three canning gauges this summer; does that mean home canners have had someone else check their canning gauges for accuracy? That would be a first step toward food safety. I tested a gauge once after a woman canned 45 quarts of green beans. Her gauge was not reading correctly, all those 45 quarts had not been properly processed at 240-250 degrees F. Do you suppose the woman tossed out those 45 quarts of green beans that have a high risk of causing food borne illness? My guess is no.

What is your elevation? If you are using a canning recipe that has no elevation charts; it’s an old recipe and you need to toss it. All research-based canning recipes use elevations for hot water bath or pressure canning.

Anderson County’s elevation for home canning is 1,500 feet above sea level. Franklin County’s elevation is mostly 1,000 feet above sea level with a small part in the south half at 1,500 feet above sea level. Osage County’s elevation is mostly 1,500 feet above sea level with a very small part on the east side at 1,000 feet above sea level. How can you decide your sea level in Kansas? Check the Frontier Extension District web page: www.frontierdistrict.k-state.edu – click Health and Nutrition and then Food Preservation. ALL of K-State Research & Extension publications on home canning and more are located there.

Hot and raw pack green beans (Italian, wax, and snap) are processed as follows: Dial gauge with elevation at 0-2,001 feet above sea level should process pints at 11 pounds pressure for 20 minutes, and quarts at 11 pressure pounds for 25 minutes. At elevations of 2,001-4,000 feet above sea level, pints should be processed at 12 pounds pressure and 20 minutes; and 12 pounds pressure and 25 minutes should be used for quarts.

Green beans processed with weighted gauges in the range of 0-1,000 feet above sea level should use 10 pounds pressure and process pints at 20 minutes and quarts at 25 minutes. Above 1,000 feet above sea level using a weighted gauge, use 15 pounds pressure with processing times for pints 20 minutes, and quarts 25 minutes.

I am always asked for directions on using the hot water bath canner for preserving green beans. It is not safe. A hot water bath is 212 degrees F at sea level, it never gets hotter. This temperature kills most bacteria, mold, and yeasts that can be found in the air in our homes or outside in the garden. Botulism spores are not destroyed until the temperature 240-250 degrees F is reached. The only way to do that at home safely is the pressure canner at 11 pounds or 12 pounds using a dial gauge; and 10 pounds to 15 pounds using a weighted gauge.

For more information, call the Frontier Extension District Garnett office at 785-448-6826. Better safe than sorry.


2016_nancy_schusterNancy Schuster is a Frontier Extension District family and consumer science agent whose responsibilities include providing information about food safety, nutrition, food science and food preparation. She is based in the Garnett office of the Frontier Extension District and can be reached at 785-448-6826 or email [email protected].


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