Home canning in a scarcity environment
With spring well underway here in the southern hemisphere, preserving is on my mind. New Zealand is in a very different place with respect to home preserving than where I grew up (Pacific Northwest), and I thought I'd share some field notes.
New Zealand joined the US canning craze in the early 1900's. The Australian Glass Manufacturers Company (now the New Zealand Glass Manufacturers Company) was founded in 1920, and home preserving took off to such an extent that, by the 1960's, New Zealand was estimated to have the highest rate of (glass jar) home preserving in the world. Few preserve in New Zealand today, while there has been a bit of a preserving renniassance in the US. Part of this is because NZ trails somewhat behind popular trends, and part is because the early growth of renewed interest in NZ (during the Great Recession), happened 4 years after NZGC stopped manufacturing preserving jars (Perfit and Agee are the local equivalents to Ball and Kerr).
When I arrived in New Zealand in 2014, I had never considered what would have happened if Ball went out of business, but I have a pretty good idea now.
All ring-and-seal preserving jars in New Zealand are either over a decade old or imported from overseas. Jars from Italy are very pricy; jars from China are labeled "for decorative purposes only". Due to increased demand, a North American company now makes "Perfit" jars; they are available at the grocery for a mere $6 each. A pack of a dozen new lids is also around $6. Used Agee jars have climbed in price from $0.20/each in 2006 to $2/each today, even at thrift shops and the local recycling depot. To get jars for less, you need to have connections with someone whose grandmother used to preserve, but is too old to do it these days. People give away jars to close friends only, and with the understanding that they are not to be sold.
In the interviening generation, skills to do safe home canning have been lost. New Zealand didn't invest in public home preserving education like the US did, and with a weaker jar-making industry, there was less pressure for people to move away from thrifty practices, like re-using jars from store-bought items. Oven canning and the overflow method are far and away the most common methods employed to preserve jam, despite their relative low safety and high failure compared to water bath canning. Farmer's markets have an abundance of folks selling home-made jams and chutneys in re-used pasta sauce containers with single-piece lids.
Home preserving in actual preserving jars is rare, as the jars are expensive and considered a luxury item. People who use them have their friends in the US ship them lids (Agee takes the standard Ball/Kerr wide mouth). Only these folks do water bath canning anymore, and very few of them. Pressure canning is almost unknown, as pressure canners are a rarity--either antique (and correspondingly expensive and potentially dangerous if not well-maintained) or a pricy import. Despite this, I have heard of numerous people canning beans and meat (this has a high risk of botulism). Food safety in general isn't much of a concern because it hasn't really been a problem to date: for example, food-borne botulism, the bugbear of home preservation, had its first case in New Zealand in 1985 (2 people), and the second in 2015 (1 person). Compare this to Oregon, with a similar land area and population density, which has had 9 cases (4 outbreaks) of food-borne botulism since 2000. However, if C. botulinum has colonized more of the local soil (and there is a strong possibility that it has since its introduction), current home preserving practices will put a lot of people at risk.
On the other hand, overflow canning is a lot less hard on the rubber seal than hot water bath canning, and so the lids can be reused up to 10 times before they stop sealing. Some very thrifty folks I've spoken with even re-use lids with rust spots after "patching" them with clear nail polish. Some even still use (and reuse) parrafin, or cover the jars with cling film, though these preparations typically only last a few months.
Because so much knowledge has been lost already, folks are very reliant on advice from anyone who knows anything about food preservation. The result is that poor canning practices are spread around because they worked fine for so-and-so, or so-and-so's grandmother. I have told several people about the boiling water bath method, and not only had they never heard of it, they thought I was nuts. At the same time, they are shocked when I tell them that my seal failure is <5%, and that my jars are nearly always still good after 12 months.
However, despite my pontificating about water-bath canning and food safety, I later found myself unable to put up all the food I wanted to because I lacked the jars. After a lot of effort (and money), I had enough jars to do a fraction of the pickles, diced tomatoes, and tomato sauce I usually did (~40 pint jars), and none left over for jams and bottled fruits. Given the choice between making do with local methods and going back to industrially produced products, I gave in and did overflow canning in re-used store jars for my jams and bottled fruits. The high sugar and acid of these preparations is typically sufficient to prevent C. botulinum from growing, and the acid is not so high as to eat away at the lid, which is important as the liquid is touching the lid for this canning method. The jars sealed (though with a 10% failure rate while I was experimenting to find the optimal method), and there hasn't been too much trouble with them. When the seal fails in the pantry, yeasts tend to get to it first, as we have so much sourdough yeast around all the time, they get to everything--even the food in the fridge goes sour before it goes moldy half the time. We scrape off the yeasty stuff, re-boil the jam for at least 10 minutes (this de-activates the botulism toxin, rendering it harmless, if present), and then stick it in the fridge to be used next.
I have also experimented with water-bath canning in re-used store jars with good success. The theory is that it is a bad idea as the jars are designed to be used only once, but this simply means that they might break in the water bath. If you are careful to not let them knock together too much, there is little danger. Lids used for water-bath canning can be used again in overflow canning, but I have not tried re-using them in the water-bath. Having seen how robust the rubber seals are, I'm sure they'd work at least a second time with minimal seal failure. Of course, the lids wear out after a while and have to go to the metal scrapper, but then one is left with more jars than lids! The solution to this problem for older local women is to order new lids for store jars from the place that supplies the local packing plants; as this is a small country, big businesses are more willing to work with individual citizens, and it is about half as expensive as buying a new wide-mouth lid.
The whole experience has been very eye-opening. Canning is touted as an essential survival skill in some circles, but it is really very fragile. People are still making it work in New Zealand, but it would be very difficult indeed to get everyone home preserving again, as the local infrastructure (knowledge as well as manufacturing) has been compromised.
How does the canning scene look from where you are?