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Beyond USDA Guidelines: Ensuring Safe Canning Practices

Updated: May 28, 2023

Today I want to talk about a topic that's really important when it comes to preserving your own food: canning. Specifically, I want to challenge the notion that using only USDA-approved canning methods is enough to ensure your canned goods are safe to eat.

Now, don't get me wrong, the USDA has some great guidelines for canning that are designed to keep you safe. But the truth is, these guidelines are based on a lot of assumptions and testing that may not be applicable to every situation. For example, the USDA assumes that you're using fresh produce that's been properly washed and handled, that you're using the right amount of acid to prevent the growth of harmful bacteria, and that you're processing your jars at the right temperature and for the right amount of time. But what if one of those things isn't true?

The reality is that there are a lot of factors that can affect the safety of your canned goods, and the USDA guidelines simply can't account for all of them. For example, if you're canning high-acid foods like tomatoes, you need to make sure they have a pH of 4.6 or lower to be safe. But how do you know what the pH of your tomatoes is? The only way to be sure is to test them with a pH meter or pH strips, which most home canners don't have.

Another example is altitude. The USDA guidelines are based on sea level, but if you live at a high altitude, you need to adjust your processing time to ensure that your jars are heated to the right temperature. If you don't do this, your jars may not be safe to eat, even if you followed the USDA guidelines to the letter.

So, what can you do to ensure that your canned goods are safe to eat? First and foremost, use safe canning methods. This means using a pressure canner for low-acid foods like vegetables and meats and using a water bath canner for high-acid foods like fruits and pickles. Don't try to shortcut the process by using an oven or microwave, and don't use open-kettle canning, which is a very old method that's no longer considered safe.

Secondly, don't rely solely on the USDA guidelines. Educate yourself about the factors that can affect the safety of your canned goods, and take steps to ensure that you're doing everything you can to keep yourself and your family safe. For example, if you're canning at a high altitude, look up the processing times for your specific altitude and adjust accordingly. If you're canning a low-acid food that isn't listed in the USDA guidelines, do some research to find out what the processing time should be.

Finally, be vigilant about checking your canned goods for signs of spoilage. This includes checking the seals on your jars, looking for bulging lids, and checking for off smells or discoloration. If you have any doubts about the safety of your canned goods, err on the side of caution and throw them out.

In conclusion, while the USDA guidelines are a great starting point, they're not the be-all and end-all when it comes to safe canning. I often choose to can food that may be considered "unsafe" by government standards. But the truth is, much of it just has not ever been tested. By using safe canning methods, educating yourself about the factors that can affect the safety of your canned goods, and being vigilant about checking for signs of spoilage, you can ensure that your homemade canned goods are safe and delicious. Happy canning!

A table with assorted foods
Canning can be done with many foods

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