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The Latest COVID-19 Shortage Is Canning Lids

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

OK. We have lived through the toilet paper shortage and the hand sanitizer shortage, but right now there is actually another shortage - one that's got some home canners on a fruitless search. NPR's Martha Ann Overland investigates.

MARTHA ANN OVERLAND, BYLINE: Maybe you plant a garden every year, or maybe you started one during the pandemic, and now your garden is bursting with tomatoes and peppers and corn. But if you are dreaming of canning the fruits of your labor to get your family through the coming winter with your jars of peaches and string beans, you're probably hearing this from your local store.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Unfortunately we're all sold out of all canning stuff.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Canning jar lids? Yeah, no, we don't have any.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Getting my hands on anything in regards to canning has been difficult lately. They just went flying.

OVERLAND: And there's none to be had online either.

MARLENE GEIGER: Well, it's just about everything in the canning world that you could expect.

OVERLAND: That's Marlene Geiger of Iowa State University's extension service.

GEIGER: Jar lids - probably no. 1. No. 2 is probably jars. And then from there on, you can go to pickling spices to pectin - even vinegar, the 5% that you need for safe pickling.

OVERLAND: The crisis is strangely reminiscent of the great canning lid shortage of 1975. And yes, that's what they called it.

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BOB EDWARDS: The craze to can has grown so fast...

OVERLAND: Here's then NPR host Bob Edwards.

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EDWARDS: This critical shortage has been severely felt in the Midwest, the nation's food basket.

OVERLAND: President Gerald Ford had encouraged Americans to plant their own gardens to offset high food costs. But when it came time to can, there were no lids.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: I don't know where the jar lids have gone to.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Where are the lids?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We've given away as many as three bushel of cucumbers at a time. We had jars, but we couldn't get lids for them.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: It makes me mad that some of these people have been canning for 40 or 50 years, and here they are unable to get lids.

OVERLAND: Jars can be used year after year, but lids cannot. They have a sealing compound in them that only reliably works once. Otherwise, you risk getting a nasty case of botulism. Back in 1975, angry homemakers demanded answers from their lawmakers. They phoned and wrote their congressmen and President Ford. Hearings were held to investigate whether lid makers were colluding to jack up prices. The vice president of the Ball Corporation, the company that made the Ball canning jars, was called to testify. A federal investigation determined no collusion. A tin shortage the previous year and hoarders were to blame, and manufacturers hadn't predicted the surge in home canning, just like today.

MARISA MCCLELLAN: Almost every day, I get a note on Instagram like, hey, I'm having a hard time finding the lids for canning jars. Do you know where I might find them? And then each time having to break the bad news to them that everyone's struggling.

OVERLAND: Marisa McClellan, canning expert and author of the blog Food in Jars says canners are frantic.

MCCLELLAN: I'm hearing it from strangers all across the country and my mother.

OVERLAND: Though McClellan did warn her mother early to stock up. Now with cucumbers and tomatoes starting to rot on the vine, things are getting desperate.

MCCLELLAN: There's also a rise of counterfeit sites right now - websites claiming to be Ball that are not Ball and are selling people lids that they don't ever get. So people are so desperate that there is sort of a weird faux black market that's just ripping people off.

OVERLAND: So what began as a way for many of us to cope with the pandemic to create a sense of self-reliance has given way to yet another problem with another name - the great lid shortage of 2020. Better make room in your freezers. Martha Ann Overland, NPR News Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.