Shortage of Canning Supplies Leads to Unsafe Practices

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The rising interest in home canning and the universal shortage of canning supplies has created quite a buzz of conversation among friends and family and across all virtual platforms. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of sharing of misinformation.

Due to the pandemic, many people are canning for the first time, often without guidance from research-based sources. They are relying on information gathered from family, friends, and the internet. Too often, these recommendations are inaccurate and unsafe. Whenever short-cuts and work-arounds for home canning circulate through social media channels or someone finds grandma’s old canning recipe, I get nervous because I know the risk of botulism is real and that relying on untested recipes or old practices is extremely risky.

This year’s supply shortage created further safety concerns. Home canners found store shelves stripped of all things canning – jars, lids, canners, pectin, vinegar, spices. These shortages challenged even the most experienced home canners as they tried to find suitable substitutions.

When supplies are limited, there are a few safe options. Canning jars, for example, may be found in second-hand stores or friends may have extra in storage. If older jars are used, an inspection for nicks, chips, and cracks before using them is a must. A damaged or disfigured jar should never be used for canning food. Two-piece canning lids are the only type recommended for home canning. The screw bands may be re-used as long as they are not rusted or dented. The lids, however, are designed for one-time use only and should not be re-used for canning.

There are two types of canners. A water bath canner is used for high-acid foods such as fruits, jams, pickled and fermented products. A pressure canner is used for low-acid foods such as vegetables and meats. If you can both types of food at home, you need both types of canners. If a new pressure canner cannot be purchased, a second-hand one is fine as long as it is in excellent condition – no warping with a lid that fits perfectly and locks easily. You’ll most likely need to replace the gasket and/or gauge, so check with your local Cooperative Extension office regarding canner testing and inspection.

For a water bath canner, any large deep pot with a lid can be used. The pot needs to be deep enough to cover jars with at least 1-2 inches of water. The pot of a pressure canner can be used as a water bath canner, but a water bath canner cannot be substituted for a pressure canner. Likewise, an atmospheric steam canner can take the place of a water bath canner. It is a more expensive option, though, and these types of canners are not recommended for pressure canning. If your canner does not have a rack, you may use a baking rack, silicone mat, or kitchen towel to keep jars off the bottom of the pot while processing.

Pectin, vinegar, and pickling spices are also in short supply. Luckily, there are jams and jellies that can be made without commercial pectin. White or cider vinegar may be used safely in canning as long as it is labeled as 5% acidity. Specialty and flavored vinegars are not recommended for home canning. If you already have seeds and spices in your pantry, it may not be necessary to purchase new ones. If properly stored, mustard seed, celery seed, dill seed, allspice, and cinnamon sticks generally have a longer shelf life than other spices and herbs. Pickling spice is good for up to 3 years. But spices do lose potency over time. To test whether a spice is still potent enough to be effective, rub or crush a small amount in your hand, then smell it. If the aroma is weak, the spice should not be used. While it will not cause harm, it will not flavor as intended and may produce a low-quality result.

Using the correct equipment and ingredients as well as following proper procedures are a must to safely can food at home. If you have questions or want to verify the safety of any canning procedure, call N.C. Cooperative Extension, Rutherford County Center at 828-287-6020 or refer to the following trusted resources to guide you.

The National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP) is an online resource for safe home food preservation procedures including recipes that have been research-tested by the University of Georgia. The So Easy to Preserve book of recipes is available for purchase on the NCHFP website.

USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning” provides research-tested recipes both online and in print.

N.C. Cooperative Extension, Rutherford County Center is your local resource for printed materials, educational classes, free canner testing and consultations. Contact Tracy Davis at 828-287-6020.

To learn more, read my recent post Beware Unsafe Canning Practices or check out Where Are the Canning Jars? Is it 1975 All Over Again? by Debra Stroud, Area Specialized Agent, Consumer and Retail Food Safety, NC State Extension.

Safe canning!

Jars of home canned vegetables

Photo image from National Center for Home Food Preservation