Three cases of botulism in Alaska this year-- here's how to can safely

Published: Sep. 12, 2017 at 3:36 PM AKDT
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It seems like almost every Alaskan has a jar of canned salmon in their pantry. Often, it seems, we use canned vegetables and meat like money, trading favors for food. Most families have a secret recipe for smoked salmon or plans to savor the the pink flesh of summer's catch during the dark winter months. But, your grandmother's recipe for canning food may not be the best way.

"I'm thinking about my grandmother, even my mother in some instances have done the canning and food preservation for years and years and years but over time research has been more extensive and has shown that some changes need to happen," Julie Cascio a professor and canning expert at the UAF Cooperative Extension Service said.

A pressure canner is required for processing fish or other less acidic meats, Cascio said. The high temperatures reached under pressure are necessary to ensure a safe product--set the timer and temperature to 100 minutes at 240 degrees. Pressure canning uses both pressure and heat and can reach higher temperatures than simply boiling or smoking the meat, which means you're more protected against botulism that can happen in meats, fish and vegetables.

Epidemiologist Louisa Castrodale with the Department of Health and Human Service says this year there have been three cases of botulism in Alaska. The average hovers anywhere between zero cases, to 10, according to DHHS.

Here's how Castrodale describes how someone feels when they eat food and get sick because of botulism: "People will feel they'll start feeling like they're being paralyzed, no one's ever said that it hurts, I don't think it hurts, it's just this shutting down of the nerves to the point where you're not able to breath but people are conscious and can understand what's happening."

Castrodale says Alaska has a high number of people who can food--perhaps more than most states.

"The cases in Alaska have traditionally been among Alaska Natives who have consumed traditionally aged foods so these are foods that aren't typically cooked," Castrodale said, "it's generally in an animal product like fish-head or seal or seal oil and it's aged and so that process allows the bacteria to grow and then form the toxin."

The Cooperative Extension has a huge amount of information on how to product your food from being spoiled or from getting you sick.

Here are some highlights for smoking or jarring fish: Smoking fish is not a true food preservation technique — it changes the flavor and texture but does not "preserve" or create a shelf-stable product. Even refrigeration won't guarantee that smoked fish will stay safe to eat. The bacteria that cause botulism could start to grow after 2-3 weeks of refrigeration. For long-term storage, smoked fish must be frozen or canned. Jarred or canned smoked fish must be processed in a pressure canner to destroy Clostridium botulinum spore. The temperature of home smokers will vary depending on the type of smoker but most will generally reach at least 130° and up to 160°F. These temperatures are high enough to dry the fish if air flow isn't severely restricted. The best way to know if the fish is done is to measure the weight loss, which is how much moisture evaporates during smoking. A 10 percent weight loss creates good-quality product after canning. The moisture loss in most smoked fish is usually 20 to 30 percent. Oily fish such as black cod and Chinook salmon will seem very moist due to their higher fat content.


• Process 1-pint jars for 100 minutes.

• Use 10 pounds pressure for a weighted pressure gauge.

• Use 11 pounds pressure for a dial pressure gauge. If you use 1⁄2-pint jars, process for 100 minutes also, using the same pressures recommended for 1-pint jars.