Critical canning

Maureen Porzio sells her homemade pasta and pesto sauce at the Mount Pleasant Farmers Market. Her canning techniques are regulated by state and federal rules to ensure safety.

The homemade rosemary pesto that Maureen Porzio ladled into a sample-size cup last week at the Mount Pleasant Farmer’s Market was more than just a gateway for customers to taste the sauce and possibly buy one of her canned products.

For Porzio, it offered her customers reassurance that her canning techniques, which are regulated by state and national rules to prevent botulism and a host of other illnesses, are safe.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, botulism may cause extreme illness and death. There were 161 laboratory-confirmed and 16 probable cases of botulism in 2014, the highest since 170 cases were reported in 2006.

In 2014, foodborne botulism cases were traced to several homemade items, including canned pickles, canned beef stew and canned tomato sauce.

Two weeks ago, the Journal of the American Medical Association highlighted a 2014 case in Ohio. Two roommates developed severe botulism symptoms after consuming pesto sauce purchased from a farmers market.

“People who frequent farm stands and farmers markets should realize the risk of botulism from improperly canned foods, especially low-acid foods such as beans and peas,” the JAMA author wrote.

But compared to other foodborne illnesses, botulism is relatively rare. The CDC says the predominant type of E. coli infects about 95,000 people each year.

The Carolinas dodged botulism in the 2014 report but the bordering states of Georgia, Tennessee and Virginia all reported cases. The CDC says botulism can occur when canned vegetables are not properly sealed or when they are consumed after they’ve gone bad.

Symptoms of botulism include blurred vision, drooping eyelids, slurred speech, difficulty swallowing, dry mouth and muscle weakness.

To prevent the spread of botulism and other foodborne illnesses in this state, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control prohibits the sale of home-canned items. Products must be canned in a commercial kitchen and cleared through a group that is recognized by the Food and Drug Administration as a “Process Control Authority.”

“That’s important because people are trusting us, as a small business, to have a very strong and sanitary process,” Porzio said.

Chef Ann Nault, who was also at Tuesday’s farmers market selling homemade relish, jalapenos and sauces, explained that if people sell canned products, they have two options: They can have a certified group or person can the items for them; or they can become certified themselves by taking a five-day class with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and passing a test.

“I’m very careful in making sure my products are the right temperature when they’re filled and the right pH when they’re processed,” she said. “That way, I can guarantee a long shelf life for my customers and avoid concerns like botulism.”

Clemson University’s Food2Market Program is one of the well-known Process Control Authorities and works directly with businesses during their early stages to help them determine which agencies will regulate their products.

Adair Hoover, a spokesman for the program, said that depending on the agency, Food2Market will often be able to give guidance on what will be required to become registered to sell in the state.

“With regard to botulism, product testing is often necessary to make sure that commercial foods will be safe to eat,” he said. “The objective of product testing is to make sure consumers get a safe food product that does not encourage the growth of bacteria, leading to foodborne illness.”

Foodborne botulism isn’t the most common form, but it is considered a public health emergency because the contaminated food may still be available to other persons besides the patient. Other forms include contracting the disease as an infant in the intestinal tract or through a wound.

Though the commercial market is covered through state regulations, many people who can fruits and vegetables at home often don’t know the proper methods to store their foods safely.

“If you’re canning at home, it’s important to read up on instructions and follow them to the letter,” Nault added.

Reach Derrek Asberry at 843-937-5517. Follow him on Twitter @DerrekAsberry.