What is Botulism?

Botulism is a serious form of food poisoning that can occur from eating improperly canned foods. It can be caused by other things as well, but this article will deal with the botulism in home canned food issues.  

This page may be scary to some people. I truly don’t want to scare you! This is actually a canning risk that is so avoidable. Remember, it is easily avoided by following tested procedures.  

If you do things right (and right doesn’t mean hard), you can enjoy your home canned foods and grow and harvest for your own pantry. Self sufficiency is a good goal. Don’t let fear hold you back. 

Botulism is one of the most easily avoidable risks when canning food!

This doesn’t sound like anything I want to mess around with!  

So why am I not afraid?  

Because it is a canning risk that is actually easy to avoid.  

Botulism in Home Canned Food

Did you know that Clostridium botulinum spores are on most fresh food surfaces? It is in the dirt; it is just about everywhere. The spores are harmless on fresh foods. However, when certain conditions exist, these spores will germinate, multiply, begin dying, and then produce a deadly toxin. It is this toxin that causes serious food poisoning known as botulism. 

The conditions where the spores become dangerous are:

  • absence of oxygen,
  • low acidity levels, and
  • temperatures between 40 and 120 degrees Fahrenheit (4.5 to 49 degrees Celsius).

Sounds just like the conditions in canned foods! Both home canned or commercially canned.

Home canned food.

Botulism Symptoms 

Can consist of nausea, vomiting, vision problems, weakness, and fatigue. Someone with botulism can also have difficulty swallowing and breathing.  

Early symptoms of botulism poisoning consist of weakness in the muscles of the face, mouth, and throat. Vision may be blurred. Swallowing becomes difficult. Breathing may be difficult. Basically, botulism is attacking and paralyzing muscles that control these things.   

If you see any of these symptoms, go to the emergency room immediately. Call ahead and let them know you are on the way. It is not something to mess around with. 

Signs of Botulism in Food

A lot of food spoilage has signs. You’ll know it is there because it smells funny, tastes funny, or looks funny. Some things to look for are: bulging lids, food that spurts out of the jar when you open it (it is under pressure), leaking jars, or even mold on top of the food in the jar. With botulism, you might not have these signs.  

Does Botulism Have a Taste?  

No, it does not! So do not taste test any jars that you are unsure of. 

Can You Smell Botulism?

No, you can’t! So do not try to smell any jars that you are unsure of to determine if you think it is spoiled.  

What Does Botulism Look Like in a Jar?  

Nothing! You cannot see botulism. It doesn’t bubble. It doesn’t get cloudy. It doesn’t do anything. You won’t know it is there until you get sick.  

More home canned food.

Stopping Botulism in Canned Goods 

There are 2 ways to get rid of botulism in home canned goods: Heat and acidity.

Foods that are naturally high in acidity are not a risk for botulism and can thus be processed in a water bath canner. This processing is sufficient to stop other forms of spoiling. Foods like fruit and pickled items with the added vinegar. 

Foods that are naturally LOW in acidity are at risk for botulism and should be processed in the high heat of a pressure canner. That high heat stops botulism in its tracks. Foods like meat and vegetables. 

Botulism spores are stopped at temperatures above 240 degrees Fahrenheit. This is only achievable in a pressure canner. No matter how long you boil water, it will not reach this temperature. That is why you need the pressure, from a pressure canner, to reach that level of heat. 

As a home canner, If you follow the recommended guidelines and process your foods with the correct canning methods, you should have no problems.

  • Meats and vegetables you must use a pressure canner for the safest methods.  
  • Jams, jellies, fruit, and pickles can be processed safely with a water bath canner. 
  • Tomatoes are a special case...read more here.

How to Clean Up Botulism 

First, if you suspect there is botulism in your jars, your food can not be “cleaned up.” It should be disposed of. If your jar is still sealed, the best thing is to just dispose of the entire jar. Place it in a heavy plastic bag and throw it away.  

However, if your jar is opened or leaking, you’ll need to detoxify your jar and contents. I have never had to detoxify in this manner. Check this: https://www.cdc.gov/botulism/consumer.html#throwaway for information on how to dispose of spoiled foods.  

Remember, animals can get sick too, so please don’t dispose of this in a way that a pet will get into it.  

Tops of canning jars.

What Foods Can Cause Botulism?

Any food that is improperly canned, whether that is home canned or even commercially canned foods, can cause botulism. Usually, this will be something that should have been processed in a pressure canner. All vegetables and meats need that high heat and pressure, and tomatoes need the added acidity. 

Don't Be Afraid

I’ve been accused of fear mongering and holding people back from preserving food at home. That to me is so very ridiculous. I have an entire site about home canning. Why would I want you stop canning!?! My goal is to give you information, because I believe information conquers fear.

Get Started with Your Pressure Canner Today!

If you know you want to use a pressure canner to can meats and vegetables, but you are afraid of the canner itself and the process of pressure canning, you are not alone! I have so many people with this issue that I created this video training to help you get that canner out and running: Pressure Canning Confidence Video Series.

Canner and jars.

From a Reader...

New Canner w/ Botulism Fears!
by: Paige


I finally attempted to can my meat sauce following all directions and using a pressure canner. They sealed beautifully, I polished the jars and set them in my pantry with pride.

Now, I just look at them. As a Biology major I just wonder if they contain delicious sauce or eminent death from Botulism!

I am scared to consume them!

Is there any way to test food product for Botulism to ensure your methods are solid?

I am sure I sound crazy but I really want to learn how to do this with confidence...I am moving to a farm in less than a year. I just don't have and family/friends with experience!

Thanks so much!

Sharon's Answer:

Paige, I don't know of a method to test for botulism in your jars. However, I'm so glad to encourage you that as long as you are sure you followed the tested methods, your meat should be fine. Enjoy it.

It is nice to encourage someone who is cautious!

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What is Botulism? How to Stop Botulism in Home Canning...

Page last updated: 11/14/2020.



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Any statements or claims about the possible health benefits conferred by any foods have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. You are encouraged to verify all canning and food preservation advice on the USDA food preservation website. 

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