State of Washington attorney Mike O’Connell’s experience with a home canning project gone awry represents the sort of nightmare scenario Jean Weese and her nine-member Extension Food Safety Team are working to prevent.

Actually, to say this project went awry is a gross understatement. The elk meat O’Connell brought home and canned after a hunting trip almost killed him a couple of days after consuming some of it, according to report by KPLU, a National Public Radio-affiliated station in Seattle.

O’Connell’s big mistake was short-cutting the pressure-canning time, based on the notion that the meat was thoroughly processed — a recipe for disaster.

Hours after sampling some of his canned fare, he experienced rubbery legs, followed by double vision and, sometime before admitting himself to an emergency room, stroke-like symptoms. Fortunately for him, the truth came out just in time: His faulty canning had exposed him to deadly botulism.

“He took shortcuts, and he’s lucky to be alive,” says Weese, an Extension food safety specialist and Auburn University professor of food science who heads the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s Food Safety Team.

The 67-year-old O’Connell is among the growing legions of Americans who are not only raising or hunting much of their own food, but also preserving it, occasionally with disastrous results.

“We’re seeing more interest in food preservation,” says Janet Johnson, a regional Extension agent who operates in east and central Alabama. “They remember what their parents and grandparents did when they were children and they want to return to it.”

“The problem is they often don’t know the difference between pressure and water-bath canning.”

Another problem is that many aspiring food preservationists are looking to the Internet, which represents a kind of Pandora’s box in food safety terms, says Angela Treadaway, a regional Extension agent in central Alabama. 

She advises them instead to look to the people who set the standard: the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Cooperative Extension System.

Weese has also received her share of Internet-related food preservation questions.

“I get these phone calls from people who say they’re not pressure canning, they’re just water-bath canning based on some recipe they found on the Internet,” she says.

While many food preservation novices view these merely as options, Weese says they come down to life-and-death decisions.

“Many people are clueless about the dangers associated with botulism,” she says. “It’s one of the deadliest toxins to humans, yet most people know more about anthrax than botulism, even though botulism is deadlier.”

Extension home preservation educators worked tirelessly throughout the 20thcentury imparting preservation standards, all supported U.S. Department of Agriculture research. The effort is widely regarded as a singular achievement of Cooperative Extension work, Weese says.

However, within the last few decades, Weese and other members of her team have noticed that much of that foundation of knowledge grounded in years of research has steadily eroded.

Last year, she and her team set about reaffirming that standard, offering what they call Master Food Preservation training throughout Alabama to people who are trying their hand at food preservation for the first time.

The Food Safety Team reached more than 1,000 participants last year with the training and expect to reach a thousand more in 2013, Weese says.

The training covers all facets of food preservation — pressure canning, water-bath canning, freezing and drying — and is based only on USDA-prescribed recipes and procedures.

To underscore the dire importance of home preservation to safety, Weese and some of her colleagues display an image bearing 14 caskets to underscore the calamity that can follow faulty food preservation. These caskets represent the number of people who died from a botulism outbreak in the 1930’s when a woman served her family inadequately processed food.

As Treadaway emphasizes, adequate processing is the critical issue in home food preservation, especially with recipes involving low-acidic foods.

“Jams and jellies are not as big a concern because they are high acidic foods that provide an inhospitable environment for botulism,” she says. “But we emphasize being careful with things such as salsa and vegetable soups — cases where you’re mixing low- and high-acidic foods.”

Low-acidic foods, such as vegetables, always need to be pressure canned, Treadaway says.

While it is possible to can meat safely, Treadaway stresses that the process takes between 75 and 95 minutes — something that often proves more trouble than it’s worth to some canners.

Despite the success they’ve had introducing new generations to preservation, Food Safety Team members are still fielding calls from people who insist on using old family recipes or materials that have been pulled off the Internet, some of which deviate sharply from prescribed USDA methods.

For a comprehensive introduction to USDA canning procedures, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation at:

http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications_usda.html.

To contact an Extension regional agent in your area about Master Food Preservation training, visit the Alabama Extension Food Safety Team Website at: http://www.aces.edu/go/389.