Are Ball's Canning Recipes Unsafe?

Are Ball's Canning Recipes Unsafe

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The Ball canning books have been called into question and may no longer be considered a safe source for canning recipes...so the Internet says.

Yep, I was pretty surprised to read this rumor in a recent social media thread...so I did some research. What I discovered is definitely something every canner should know.

The Source of Information

In August of 2020, the Iowa State Extension Office, in it's literature on 4-H food presentations at Iowa county fairs, noted that canned food made from recipes other than those from the USDA and the country's Extension Offices would not be accepted for consideration. (At most county fairs across the U.S., one of the qualifications for all canned goods submitted for judging is that they come from a tested safe recipe; this has long meant a recipe by the USDA, an Extension Office, or a Ball canning book.) Then, about a year later, the Iowa State Extension Office stopped recommending Ball books to all canners.

These rules were made quietly, which seems to account for the fact that the news is only just now hitting the Internet hard. And it is pretty shocking. Ball has been around since the 1880s and their first recipe book was published in the early 1900s. By the 1920s, they began producing the legendary Ball Blue Books, which have always been considered excellent resources for tested safe canning recipes.

The Cooperative Extension Service system, which encourages public universities to dispense the latest, greatest info on topics related to agriculture, began even earlier - in 1862. One of the jobs of Extension Offices is to offer safe canning instructions and recipes. So why is just one Extension Office putting Ball recipes into question?

A very early Ball Blue Book.

The Concerns:

Apparently, the Iowa State Extension Office has a number of concerns about Ball's recipes:

1. Ball has not provided testing data to the Extension Offices or the USDA when asked to support their claims that certain recipes are safe to can.

While I can understand how this is a concern - third party, unbiased testing is always a good thing - I can also understand why Ball, which put significant time and money into testing recipes, doesn't want to share their proprietary info. But they used to.

(To show you how careful the Extension Offices are about providing only the most accurate, safe recipes, please know that they have also withdrawn their own recipes when the testing data from years ago has gone missing. The most famous example of this is canning recipes for zucchini and summer squash (unless pickled).)

2. For many years, canning experts have complained that Ball books lack precise measurements. For instance, a recipe might call for X-number of apples, but not specify volume or weight. Since apples can vary tremendously in size, this means you'll get very different amounts from, say, 10 small apples than you would from 10 "average sized" apples. 

Crabapples canned using a Ball recipe.
While this might not be a huge problem in cooking or baking, in canning it could lead to an end product that is unsafe to eat. That's because canning relies on obtaining the correct pH and density of food. If you lower the pH, you have food that could give you botulism poisoning. If you increase density (say, by adding too many apples), the food won't heat all the way through for the specific amount of time required to kill all the harmful microorganisms that can make you ill.

3. Poor editing has also been cited. The Ball books, like most books, have some errors. For example, how-to information might be partly missing, or explanations might not be clear.


Clarification

According to Sarah Francis, who works in Food Science and Human Nutrition at the Iowa State Extension Office, other Extension Offices feel pretty similarly about the Ball books, though they have not made any official announcements about it. Just a few minutes, looking at a number of Extension Office websites, however, showed me that many are only recommending Extension Office or USDA recipes.

According to an article at The Counter, a non-profit, online news source, "Francis clarified that it’s not that they are asserting Ball recipes are unsafe, just that they can’t vouch for their safety." Tracey Brigman, the head of the National Center for Home Food Preservation (NCHFP)- a website that publishes USDA and Extension Office canning recipes - also told The Counter, “It is not that we do not recommend them [Ball recipes] per se, but we don’t endorse them because we are not familiar with their research and testing methods.”

Ball's response 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.” 

Zucchini relish is one of the few approved ways to can summer squash.

So...What's Safe?

According to The Counter, "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." Presumably, the books under scrutiny would be Ball's more recent books, including my beloved The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving, plus The All New Ball Book of Canning and Preserving, and Ball Canning, Back to Basics.

So what's a canner to do? First and foremost, I think it's an excellent idea to always compare the Ball recipe to a similar recipe found at the NCHFP website or in the USDA's Complete Guide to Home Canning. When in doubt, choose a recipe from the latter two sources. If you have some older Ball Blue Books laying around, you can also compare the recipes in them to recipes in some of the newer Ball books. Much of the time, the recipes are very similar, and I've noted some older Blue Books are better about including weight and volume.

If you're fairly familiar with canning and what can and cannot be safely changed in a canning recipe, it's pretty easy to spot weird items in a canning recipe. For example, any recipe that calls for cornstarch, flour, dairy, noodles, or rice is an obvious no-no. (I'm not saying Ball has recipes that include these items; I'm only saying that no tested safe recipe will include them.)

EDIT 9/30/21: One very questionable recipe in The All New Ball Book of Canning and Preserving has been pointed out to me. On p. 182, the recipe for "Asian Pomegranate BBQ and Stir-Fry Sauce" lists 3 cups of chicken stock as the first ingredient, yet the instructions say to water bath can this recipe. Stock is a low acid food that should be pressure canned. Therefore, I would NOT use this recipe.

If you're a new canner, and not very familiar with canning safety, I continue my recommendations to look for recipes at NCHFP, or to use the Complete Guide to Home Canning, the current edition of the Ball Blue Book, or The Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.  

If you have questions about a Ball recipe, I encourage you to email the company or join Ball's official Facebook community and ask there. Or call your local Extension Office for advice. And of course you can always post a question here on this blog.

In my opinion, the Iowa State Extension Office's treatment of this topic - not making a big announcement, but just quietly no longer recommending Ball recipes - is appropriate. In other words, the Internet has blown this story out of proportion. What a surprise.

Antique Ball jars.

 

 

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