Fifteen years ago a friend taught me how to extend the life of my garden by canning basic jams, jellies and pickles. Since then, I have spent a lot of time researching best practices and expanding my knowledge to include water bath canning and pressure canning of everything from berries to veggies and even meat.
While it has been a rewarding journey, the more I have learned about canning safety, the more I have learned about what can go wrong if the proper precautions aren’t taken.
Part of my canning journey has included swapping stories and recipes with other avid canners. The stark contrast between current USDA-approved standards and the practices of prior generations of canners is terrifying.
My grandmother often tells me stories about preserving soups and stews with low acidic ingredients and meats by simply filling a jar with hot liquid and inverting them until the lids pop. Having learned this practice from the generations before her, and because she never killed anyone, she doesn’t see any reason to adapt or change her ways.
This line of thinking isn’t unique. The more I swap stories, the more I hear from peers my own age who still process foods in a similar manner — because it’s how they were taught to can.
While it’s true that most of the time everything is fine, especially if the jars are refrigerated and consumed in a short window of time, these methods do not result in shelf-stable food that should be trusted, especially because botulism is an invisible and silent killer that leaves no distinct odor or clues.
Current canning protocols have transformed a tradition that used to result in regular incidents of death to an extremely safe and enjoyable way to preserve food. I am perfectly comfortable purchasing locally canned goods that have been inspected and certified as safe by the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
But legislation is currently being considered in Augusta that could change all of this progress. LD 795, a resolution “Proposing an Amendment to the Constitution of Maine To Establish a Right to Food” would give all individuals a right to “…acquire, produce, process, prepare, preserve and consume and to barter, trade and purchase the food of their choosing for their own nourishment…”
This means that anyone, anywhere, following any canning techniques in any atmosphere, regardless of cleanliness, can produce and sell jars of food to their friends, neighbors and community members.
As drafted, this bill creates food safety concerns that extend beyond home canning by calling into question the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry’s authority to license and regulate all food products produced and sold in Maine. This includes milk, meat, eggs, value-added products and produce.
The Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife also has expressed concerns about the implications this constitutional amendment would have on their authority to “preserve, protect and enhance” wildlife resources in Maine.
There is no doubt that hunger is a real issue in Maine, but clearly this legislation is not the correct or appropriate way to address it.
I’m not typically a person who argues for regulations, but I think most people agree that food safety is of the utmost importance, and that responsible management of our wild resources should not be brought into question.
Let’s not return to the days of questionable food practices that result in unnecessary deaths.
Krysta West is the Director of Communications and Outreach for the Maine Farm Bureau Association.