Can canners still trust the Ball Blue Book, cornerstone of the American canning canon?
To the great dismay of the online canning community, Iowa State has stopped recommending what many consider to be the “canning bible” over safety and accuracy concerns.
Last August, the Iowa State University (ISU) Extension and Outreach—the arm of the land-grant university that works directly with farmers, business owners, and families on practical science applications—quietly informed 4-H members that canned goods made with recipes from the Ball Blue Book would no longer be accepted for exhibits at county fairs. A year later, the news that ISU Extension was no longer recommending the Ball Blue Book, not just to 4-H, but to any home canner, roiled the Canning subreddit, an online community with nearly 80,000 members.
The Ball brand has had an outsized influence in home preservation over the decades. In addition to their nearly ubiquitous jars and lids, for many home canners, the Ball Blue Book is the closest thing to a canning bible, with a long and storied history. The compilation of recipes and instructions that would later become the Ball Blue Book were first collected in 1905. Along with the USDA Complete Guide to Home Canning, it is said to make up the “American canon of home canning.” The Ball name is also attached to at least two other hefty recipe books, “The All New Ball Book Of Canning And Preserving” and the “Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.”
In an emailed announcement excerpted and shared online, the agency cited several concerns with Ball’s publications, including: “not providing testing analysis and data…to verify the safety of the finished product,” a “lack of precise measurements,” and “wordy explanations, mistakes, and missing information.”
Sarah Francis, who works in Food Science and Human Nutrition at ISU Extension, said other Extensions also share their concerns. “I’m part of a regional food safety group, and I’m part of the food preservation subgroup, and I know a few [other Extensions] within our region are leaning the same way,” Francis told The Counter. Many interpreted the retraction of ISU’s prior endorsement of the Blue Book as an outright attack on the company.
The fear is that newer, less-experienced canners are following recipes they find on Pinterest or even the pages of respected food magazines that haven’t been vetted by researchers, and could make themselves or others sick.
“If somebody at Ball really got, please excuse my language, [their] panties in a twist, they could cite defamation,” Dave Skolnick, a home canner who lives in Maryland, told The Counter. If it wasn’t already clear that this is a sensitive topic, two other employees I emailed at ISU Extension to see if any Iowa 4-H participants (or their parents) were upset about the rules change declined to comment.
Francis clarified that it’s not that they are asserting Ball recipes are unsafe, just that they can’t vouch for their safety, and Ball didn’t provide enough research data to reassure them otherwise. Tracey Brigman, the interim head of the National Center for Home Food Preservation—the canning and preserving lodestar affiliated with the University of Georgia Extension—echoed Francis in an email to The Counter: “It is not that we do not recommend them per se, but we don’t endorse them because we are not familiar with their research and testing methods.”
The popularity of canning has been on the rise for more than a decade, one side effect of the ever-growing local food movement. Food preservation also got a big pandemic bump, as people stuck at home with a lot more time on their hands picked up the hobby. Recently published preserving and canning recipes and books, including some newer Ball publications, have been trending increasingly “gourmet,” according to ISU Extension, or flat out “bougie,” per John Larsen, a home canner who lives in Utah.
Take, for example, the Bon Appétit video by Brad Leone on how to can lobster and mussels, which had to be retracted because the method shown didn’t heat the food enough to kill the bacteria that causes botulism, a serious and possibly deadly illness, which cannot be detected by sight, smell, or taste. The fear is that newer, less-experienced canners are following recipes they find on Pinterest or even the pages of respected food magazines that haven’t been vetted by researchers, and could make themselves or others sick.
“We feel ethically bound to provide research-based and/or evidence-based information to our clientele. That is to ensure that the information that we are sharing, whether it be about food preservation, nutrition, food safety, family, family life, financial management, is research-based, so that they can make informed decisions.”
It remains to be seen whether last year’s home canning mania corresponded with a nationwide bump in food-borne botulism—the most recent nationwide CDC data is from 2017—but at least one state, Colorado, warned residents of several cases of the illness in late 2020 and early 2021 linked to improperly canned food.
But while demand for safe and reliable canning instructions is increasing, canners complain that the Extensions that provide assistance and recommendations are underfunded and under-resourced, and their offerings are limited. To have one rescind support for such an influential Ball publication, especially without offering an alternative, makes it seem as though a small pool of resources is getting even smaller.
“We’re not food preservation police,” said Francis. Francis said that this decision was the culmination of years of discussion, not just about the safety of Ball recipes, but about the Extension’s larger role in society.
There are over 100 land-grant universities with Extension programs that receive federal funding to carry out their mission. The kind of research and education they do varies from institution to institution, depending on the needs of the communities they are based in. Not all of them have specific canning and food preservation instruction, although the National Center for Food Preservation links to 23 Extensions that have published food preservation information, many of them tailored to their locales (For example, the Alaska Extension has published recipes for canning walrus, moose, and caribou, as well as fish and vegetables). But the foundational purpose of these institutions is to provide useful, science and research-based practical information.
“We feel ethically bound to provide research-based and/or evidence-based information to our clientele,” said Francis. “That is to ensure that the information that we are sharing, whether it be about food preservation, nutrition, food safety, family, family life, financial management, is research-based, so that they can make informed decisions.”
“For a recipe to meet the standards of recipes in the USDA Guide, it would need to be tested in a laboratory, often with published methods that support the data obtained as valid; this is what is ‘research tested.'”
In practice, that means the Extension will now only recommend recipes by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) or National Center for Home Food Preservation. They suggest home canners who want to use other recipes, including Ball, cross-check to see if they are in line with USDA recommendations.
Francis said most of the concerns and questions coming in from concerned canners were not about the Blue Book, but about Ball’s other publications, but for clarity’s sake they adopted this black-and-white policy.
Like many Americans, Larsen learned how to can from his mother and grandmother, but it wasn’t until the past few years that he picked it up again, using the Ball Blue Book as one of his guides. This summer he’s been working his way through the two other Ball publications.
“I’ve seen problems in the recipes, generally around the weights and measures of fruits,” Larsen told The Counter in a phone interview, confirming part of what ISU Extension said in their statement. For example, a recipe might call for some number of ounces of fruit, but not specify weight or volume, or whether the given amount is before or after processing. As Larsen pointed out, there’s a pretty big difference between 4 cups of raspberries and 4 cups of crushed raspberries. But he added that Ball has not been the source of the most egregiously unsafe recipes he’s seen in the wild.
A corporate spokesperson for Newell Brands, the umbrella corporation that currently owns the Ball-brand home canning line, said in a written statement to The Counter: “We’re confident in our recipe validation efforts and the testing and review we go through to ensure we provide safe and quality instructions and recipes for our canners. We take pride in knowing that they have been vetted properly using standard practices from the USDA and NCHFP. We value the relationships we have with extension agencies and we hope to address the concerns of any extension agent or extension region to ensure the quality of our work remains as expected and required by our consumers. We have in the past, and will in the future, have extension leaders visit our facility to demonstrate exactly how we validate a recipe.”
The company did not elaborate on their “standard practices” or share any detailed safety or testing data.
A number of factors can change the pH and consistency of foods, like the addition of thickening agents or other ingredients, and even the piece size of the fruit, all of which have to be taken into consideration when determining whether a recipe is safe.
“For a recipe to meet the standards of recipes in the USDA Guide, it would need to be tested in a laboratory, often with published methods that support the data obtained as valid; this is what is ‘research tested,’” Barbara Ingham, professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a food safety specialist at the Wisconsin Extension, wrote in an email. Studies, she said, should include pH testing as well as heat penetration experiments.
“I do not know that Ball is testing recipes using these standards,” she added.
“We strongly recommend that consumers not use untested recipes,” Brigman told The Counter in response to emailed questions. She explained that two factors will determine whether a food has been heated enough to prevent the growth of Clostridium botulinum, the bacteria that can release the toxin that causes botulism: pH and consistency. A number of factors can change the pH and consistency of foods, like the addition of thickening agents or other ingredients, and even the piece size of the fruit, all of which have to be taken into consideration when determining whether a recipe is safe.
Like Francis, she suggests consumers interested in using other recipes reach out to the source—you’ll note the Ball company has not provided specifics to ISU Extension or The Counter—to ask about their research methods, but there’s not much they can do beyond that. “A consumer might have to reach out to a private company to request information on their research process and they would have to then trust that process,” Brigman wrote.
For his part, Skolnick said he was satisfied by Ball’s assertion that their recipes are tested, and their invitation to Extension specialists to visit their lab. “I would go,” he said. “I think it’d be fun.”
Larsen also said he would continue to use Ball books: “I’ve done enough canning that I have a good kind of feel for something that seems a little off.”
As for the Canning subreddit, not much will change there. “We will not be flairing [flagging] Ball recipes as unsafe or untested,” one of the moderators wrote. “We will, of course, be watching further developments closely.”