Let's talk about the truth behind the USDA in America and its home canning industry regulations and recommendations. The USDA has specific and fair guidelines for the canning process and its safety. They have guidelines for each different food to preserve as well as for different canning methods.
Why do we observe safety rules in food preservation?
Food preservation safety is crucial to keep food from spoiling and people who eat it from getting sick. If food is not preserved correctly, it will spoil and, therefore, must be discarded. This wastes money and time.
Botulism and lead poisoning are just two examples of what can occur with improper food preservation methods. And we all know how sick these two things can make people.
What are the safety rules in food preservation?
There is quite a bit of discussion and argument in the canning community regarding what the government says versus what history and our forefathers tell us regarding the safety rules for canning food to preserve it.
The government will have rules. Your grandmother will have rules. Even your neighbor will have rules, and these rules may all differ.
One way to sort through all of these rules is to start looking at the history of canned food and the history of the pressure canner.
The History of Canning Food
- Can you believe that pressure cooking was invented in 1679 when French physicist Denis Papin invented the pressure cooker?
- Then, in 1795, Napoleon offered 12,000 francs to someone who could invent a way to preserve food for France's military. Canning in metal cans started here.
- In 1858, Mason glass jars were invented. Next came Ball jars.
- The USDA was created in the early 1900s.
- 1910 was the year the USDA's first canning publication came out. It was on how to can peaches with a water bath or open kettle.
- In 1915, Kerr introduced the two-piece metal lid/band combo.
- The USDA announced in 1917 that meat and vegetables (non-acidic foods) should be canned in a pressure canner.
- In the 1940s, during WWII, the government needed to take food to the troops and used tin cans. Historically some metals contained lead, but have been phased out in USA-produced foods. Also, many home canned foods went bad, so the government had much incentive to do extensive studies on preserving food so home canners weren't losing food.
- The government then determined most of its current canning guidelines.
- Now the war is over, and there is less incentive for the government to do massive food preservation studies, hence the current canning recommendations.
The History of the Pressure Canner
The pressure cooker, as mentioned above, was invented in 1679. Many people now claim that pressure cooking is very new. This claim is very prevalent today despite being incorrect.
Pressure canners now look different than pressure cookers more than 300 years old, but they still work with the same concept of cooking food under pressure using steam.
What does the government say about canning?
What are the guidelines for food preservation? The government says that when canning non-acidic foods, such as vegetables, meats, and combination recipes, all should be pressure canned.
Canning fruits and acidic foods should be done in a water bath, open kettle, or steam canner.
In the 1990's, some extensive university studies said summer squash should no longer be pressure canned because of the density.
What is the motivation behind government studies?
To answer this question, it is essential to look at two factors: the motivation and the money behind the studies.
Why is the government doing studies? History shows it was out of a dire need to feed massive numbers of war troops and those staying home.
The food on the shelves was needed for the troops. So people had to do more canning at home to keep their home shelves stocked when the store shelves were starting to get empty.
By doing these massive food preservation studies, the government was able to save money and time, and keep those canning food at home safe.
There have not been many large studies on the safety of canning since the war ended because there is no longer the motivation.
So now, it is even more important to check where your canning safety rules come from because you'll want to know the motivation behind those studies and the funding they receive.
Ask yourself, who is funding and therefore benefitting from these studies? As I mentioned, there have been some studies done by extension offices and universities, but beyond that, there just aren't many tests being done.
So though some people may say the government doesn't want us to be putting up our own food, and therefore needing to be reliant on the grocery stores, etc., and therefore dismissing the safety rules. That's actually not the case and we can rely on the rules that were established during the 1940s.
Everything Worth Preserving
Looking to preserve food at home? Discover the nine home food preservation methods to safely store delicious food for year-round eating with all of my step-by-step tutorials, recipes, and easy-to-use charts.
Learn everything you need to know about cold storage (aka freezer), water bath/steam canning, pressure canning, dehydrating, fermenting, freeze-drying, root cellar, infusion, and salt/curing in the new book, Everything Worth Preserving.
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Hey pioneers, welcome to episode number 366. Today's episode of the podcast, we're going to be doing a little bit of diving into talking about the USDA, how it got established, how it affects our canning guidelines today, especially in the United States, and some actual history on pressure canning, and canning in general. Now, if you follow my YouTube channel, you probably saw this video that was just released, and I'm going to be playing some of the audio from that video, in today's episode. But I thought it was important enough... I don't usually bring a YouTube video over to the podcast, so if you follow me on YouTube, you'll know, not very often do you get a YouTube video that is just regurgitated, or redone as a podcast episode. Almost always, it is completely different content that is on the YouTube channel versus what comes out on a new podcast episode.
But this is one, since that video released, and I've been looking through the comments and reading through the comments on that video, and really what spurred me to make the video in the first place is very, very interesting. And you'll see, really... I think what's been the most interesting, I should say, is when that video released, is you look through the comments in the YouTube video, and people, wherever they stand on the side of things, which sounds so funny to see that you would have divisiveness, or that there is a stance on whether or not to follow the USDA guidelines and if they are meant for good, if they are something that's bad, and I go over all of that, you'll hear that very shortly in this episode, looking at that in historical context and how to use that today, et cetera.
But whatever they already had formed an opinion on, is what they heard and took away from the video. So it was very interesting reading the comments, because I had some people who were saying that any government agency is bad, and so glad that I'm tackling that, and then I had other people, that mind you, they're listening to the exact same thing you're going to be listening to, they all watch the same video, and then I had other people who said, "I have had family members who were injured from botulism or died from botulism, so I'm so glad that you are talking about this."
So I just found it fascinating to see the different responses from people who were watching the exact same thing, because by their comments, you would've thought they were watching two completely different videos. So I hope that you really enjoy today. And one of the things that I'm adding in, so if you did watch the YouTube video, stay for a part at the... Well, actually, I'll do it now. I won't make you stay through it all if you've already watched that video.
And that is, botulism and the USDA canning recommendations. So where I'm going with that is in the comments, and it's not even been on this YouTube video, I've seen a lot of this over the years of being an online food preservation, someone who teaches on it, educator. And people will say, "Well, I have been using XYZ method for years." Or, "My parents or my grandparents have used this method for years, and we've never gotten botulism poisoning. We've never gotten sick from this." I've seen other people said, "Well, I canned this item and then I had it tested, and it tested negative, so therefore this method is safe." And here's my response, I suppose, my opinion, my thoughts on this. And I actually think that botulism poisoning is relatively rare, especially based upon seeing some of the way people choose to preserve food. It has to be relatively rare.
But here's the thing, the guidelines are there so that if botulism spores are present, and they start to multiply, which is what happens in an anaerobic, something that's sealed up without oxygen, the inside of a canning jar as an example, and the spores are, there and they start multiplying in that environment, if it is anaerobic, without oxygen, and is not acidic. Specifically, 4.6 on the pH scale or lower, which means it's more acidic. If it's not an acidic environment, because it doesn't multiply in acidic environments, then it's not going to reach those high toxin levels. That is what causes the botulism poisoning, which is a neurotoxin, and is fatal, and also can cause a lot of other things. Even if someone is able to get the antidote in time, they don't always recover full functions in certain aspects.
So that being said, what I find interesting is the guidelines that we have are there so that if those botulism spores are present, that they are sufficiently killed so that they don't multiply inside the food. So just because someone has used a specific method and it didn't test positive for botulism, doesn't mean that anybody else using that method is safe. It just means that, most likely, there weren't botulism spores in that food to begin with. So spoiler alert, I lean towards the side of, if there's botulism spores present, I want the peace of mind and the reassurance that the method that I have used would destroy them. So I do pressure can my meats, my vegetables, et cetera, to the full-time, the pounds per pressure, following all of the guidelines there, because I want that peace of mind. I don't ever have to want to wonder. And if there were ever botulism spores there, I don't ever want that on my shoulders that a family member, friend, loved one, et cetera, whoever ate my home preserved food, would suffer because of that.
So anyways, I just kind of wanted to put that out there, because there were some comments that said, "Well, so and so tested with a pH meter, and some different things and it all tested negative." And that's great that it did, but that doesn't mean that just because something tested negative once in one environment, that that's really what we would consider a controlled environment, or a large group study that you would then have a new practice or a new guidelines on. Because it has to be done in multiple different environments over multiple times with the same consistent results. And also, for me, it would be that there were botulism spores there, that process sufficiently killed them, then I would consider that a new safe procedure for that specific food.
Anyhow, we are going to get to the history of the USDA and the canning recommendations, where a lot of that was done, and a lot of people found it very, very fascinating, so did I when I first started researching it. I think you will be shocked to learn when the actual first pressure cooker and pressure cooking was invented and begun being used.
Today's episode, speaking of cooking, is sponsored by Azure Standard. Azure Standard is one of the places that I get a good portion of our food and pantry supplies that I'm not already raising and growing ourself. And as we move into the baking season, it's actually where I get the majority of the flour and or my wheat berries, if I'm grinding my own flour. I am able to get organic, unbleached flour sources from, them as well as organic wheat berries, and the great thing is you can buy them in smaller packages, but you can also buy them in bulk.
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When you're getting into bread baking, though, or pastry baking, so think pie crusts, those types of things, croissants, that's actually a bread, though we don't develop... We don't knead it and treat it quite the same way when you're doing croissants as you would a regular loaf of bread. But that's where pastry flour comes into play. Or you'll see bread flour come into play, and they have different formulations, or different amounts, I should say, of gluten in protein. And that will affect what you're baking. So if you want really light and fluffy baked goods, pastry flower is the way to go. Now, when you get into your individual wheat berries, there's even more nuances on knowing what to use for what type of thing that you're baking. So I have a full on podcast episode that you can go back and listen to in the archives and or read, if you haven't done so yet.
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Okay, so now we are going to dive into the historical part, and if we should or shouldn't be trusting the USDA canning recommendations. The real truth behind the USDA and our canning regulations and or recommendations. So we have, in the United States, pretty specific guidelines for what is considered safe canning. When to use a pressure canner for non-acidic foods like your vegetables, your meats, your combination recipes, versus doing a water bath or even open kettle canning, where you've got your fruits and those acidic type foods where you process them either in a steam canner, a water bath canner, or some people will even still do open kettle canning, where you're not actually processing it in anything, it's just putting the hot contents in the jar and then having a vacuum action that ends up sealing it.
So within all of this, there's a lot of people who will argue and say that the USDA has all of these safety recommendations for using a pressure canner on foods and different tested recipes, et cetera, just as a means to keep people from putting up food, or making it harder to put up food, and they don't think that you should abide by said safety rules. The argument that your great-grandparents, or people have been canning for a really long time, and pressure caners and pressure cookers are a recent invention, and people preserved food for many, many years without them, and so there's no need to use them now. Now, I will go on record as saying that generally, I am not very trustful of a lot of the government agencies that we have the way that they operate right now, with all of the lobbyists that are able to funnel large amounts of money in and can easily sway different decisions and even different studies that are done, because you have to look at who's backing them, et cetera.
However, we really need to look at the history of canning food, and the USDA recommendation studies, and how did all of these develop, specifically in the United States? Because obviously I live in the US, and those are the guidelines that I use when I look at my food safety. So as far as pressure canners and pressure cookers being a recent invention, that's actually completely false.
The pressure cooker was first invented in 1679. 1679. So hundreds and hundreds of years ago was actually when pressure cooking food was first invented. And of course, those pressure cookers didn't look anything like we have now. They've become much more streamlined, and now we have pressure canners, et cetera. But the mechanism of actually cooking food under pressure with steam, was invented a long time ago. And it was actually, Napoleon, needed a way to get food to his troops and they created a big contest, and that was how the pressure cooking was originally done. And then, of course, we've had lots of iterations since then.
But to say that the pressure cooker is a rather new invention, not true at all. Now, when we look at the ways that we have preserved food throughout history, canning is very new, in glass jars. Now, we had metal canning in tins, and they were actually soldered with lead. That's how they would seal them. It would take out the oxygen, of course, and we know, as we have seen throughout history, if you ate a large consumption of those, you could actually get lead poisoning. And there was issues with eating food only from tins, especially ships and shipwrecks where you had sailors, and that was the only food that they could eat, ended up developing a lot of harmful things that happened from that. So the glass jar, what we all refer to most of us as a mason jar, was first invented in 1858.
So that's actually when your mason jar was invented. And of course, something was invented in 1858, it took a while for that to become widespread. And then, of course, you had Ball that came in. And then lastly was Kerr. And Kerr actually was the company that invented the two piece metal band and lid system that we have now. You had some of the older ones where you had rubber gaskets, you had glass lids, you had zinc lids, there was lots of different variations since the first invention of the mason jar in 1858.
So really, preserving your vegetables and meat and fruit in glass jars with canning, it's a relatively recent method of food preservation. And it was originally, when you look back, we have the formation of what we now call the USDA, in the early 1900s. In fact, the first publication of canning with recipes was for canning peaches, and was in a publication in 1910. That's only 112 years ago. So when you look back through history, that's actually not that long ago. So that's when you begin to have instructions for canning fruit using the water bath and or open kettle canning methods.
Okay, 1910 was the first publication of that. It was in 1917, so only seven years from there, that we came out with the guidelines and the recommendations that meat and vegetables, non-acidic foods, should be canned in a pressure canner. So those actually have been the guidelines for well over a hundred years, just a lot of people didn't know them, didn't learn them and didn't practice them, and handed down practices that didn't use the pressure canner, for many years. So it's actually been something that we've had, and these recommendations have been around for a really long time. Now, we had extensive study done, where almost all of our now guidelines and times when it comes to canning come from, especially the pounds per pressure for different foods, and how long you can them at pounds per pressure, et cetera, obviously, the only way to achieve that is by using a pressure canner, was done in the 1940s, and was actually done during war World War II.
And the reason for that, is because the US government needed the populace to be putting up their own food, because they needed to take the food that was being commercially canned in tins, and a lot of the food supply, again, where war comes into play with this, and ship it to the troops in Europe for World War II. So they did a lot of studying at that time on how to safely can food, because there was a lot of instances where the food would go bad. So it was being canned without following what we now consider our safety standards, and so you had people that were losing food. They were putting it up, but it was going bad, and you did have cases of botulism.
So it was in the government's best interest, because they needed to get food to the troops, to figure out how to make sure that the food that was being canned at home was done so safely and was lasting people so that they could actually rely on it. So when you look at what was the motivation for those studies at that time, and the funding for it, and how we have, even to this day, the majority of our canning information, is based upon those studies from that time period.
Now, the reason we haven't had much past then, is because the government no longer was in their interest. They didn't need people to can food at home anymore after the war ended. And so there's not much money either, in those studies, to be made. And so a lot of the studies and things that we have now, of course, is if there's money behind it, people are willing to do studies and to invest in that. And there's just not a lot of that. There are some studies that we had done in the 1990s by some different extension offices and state universities, et cetera, that have slightly changed just a few things. It's no longer recommended to can summer squash all by itself in a pressure canner because of density issues, for example. But pretty much the majority of our safe and tested guidelines are based upon from what was done in the 1940s, but even prior to that, it was 1917 that the recommendations to use a steam pressure canner system was actually put out.
Now, if you are interested in learning more about preserving food at home, I highly encourage you to grab a copy of my book, Everything Worth Preserving, because not only does it go through all of the canning, both pressure canning fruits, vegetables, and meats, but all of the different ways of home food preservation, because as we just learned, canning is relatively new, but there're many ways that we have been preserving food safely at home for centuries, even thousands of years, that we can employ today, and I go over all of those in that book.
Well, I hope that you enjoyed this episode, and at the very least, learned some interesting historical facts. Thank you for joining me, and I can't wait to be back here with you next week. Blessings and mason jars for now, my friend.
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