Keeping our food safe

Food safety is on everyone's minds these days. By following some food safety steps, consumers can keep their food healthy.

Although we can't see them, bacteria are part of our lives. So are mold spores. Bacteria and molds can spoil our food. Some bacteria can make us sick. (It should be remembered, however, that some bacteria are beneficial, too.)

So, one of the priorities in the preparation of foods is cleanliness. Cooking utensils and cutting boards need to be thoroughly cleaned. That goes for storage containers, too, in fact, it goes for anything used in cooking.

Before cooking, people should wash their hands with soapy water - both sides on the hands and between the fingers, too. Hands also should be washed after preparing raw meats and garden vegetables. This is necessary so that bacteria from these uncooked foods don't contaminate other foods.

This time of year, cooks take advantage of the wide variety of fruits and vegetables by home canning.

There are some basic safety tips for getting canning equipment ready. For example, jars should be checked for cracks and chips, especially around the closures. These can prevent airtight seals.

Some cooks save commercial jars, such as glass mayonnaise jars, and use them for canning, since it's cheaper than buying jars.

However, it's probably not a very good idea since these types of jars are more apt to break in pressure canners and may not seal. In addition, consumers are advised to use only half-pint, pint, and quart-size jars, not larger sizes.

Jars and rings should be washed in hot, soapy water and rinsed well. Some home canners also sterilize jars. And new lids should be used, following directions in canning books for sealing jars.

Vegetables and fruits should be thoroughly washed before preparing them for the canning jars.

This loosens the soil that may contain bacteria.

But perhaps the most important safety step in home canning is to choose the proper method for processing fruits and vegetables - whether to use a hot water bath or pressure cooker.

To understand just how important this step is, consider "Clostridium botulinum," the bacterium that causes botulism.

If not treated promptly, botulism can be fatal.

There are several classifications of botulism, but the type considered for this example is food-borne botulism.

According to "Food Safety: Botulism," a leaflet from a Food and Nutrition Series, prepared by P. Kendall (Colorado State University Cooperative Extension nutrition specialist), botulism-causing bacteria thrive in high moisture, low-salt, and low-acid environments where there is no refrigeration and no oxygen.

So, what better environment for this type of bacteria than a jar of under-processed vegetables? Assume for this example that the vegetable is green beans (though it could be many others).

Further assume that the beans have been washed before being prepared for the jars.

Cleaning the green beans reduced but did not remove all of the botulism bacteria. The jars are filled with beans and water and the lids put on. And the conditions are right for botulism growth. There's moisture, low-acid, no refrigeration and a lack of oxygen.

But the botulism can be controlled if the home canner knows how to properly process the jars of beans. They must be processed in a pressure canner where pressure, adjusted to altitude, supplies enough heat to destroy the bacteria. The amount of pressure is crucial.

Home canners need to carefully follow the directions in current food preservation cookbooks for properly processing fruits and vegetables.

The "Ball Canning Book" is such a book that usually can be found at CSU Cooperative Extension Offices. (There is usually a small fee for the book.) Leaflets from the "Food and Nutrition Series" on canning jellies, vegetables, and fruits also can be found, free of charge, at Extension Offices.

After canning, lids should be tested for sealing. This is done by pressing the flat lids at their centers. The lids should be slightly concave and should not move. (Sometimes the lids make a "popping" sound after canning, which indicates that they have sealed.)

A "Canning Vegetables" leaflet from the Food and Nutrition Series suggests that, before tasting, all home-canned vegetables be boiled for 10 minutes, plus a minute for each 1,000 feet above sea level.

Home-canned spinach and corn should be boiled 20 minutes. This is a safety precaution.

Bulging lids and leaking jars are signs of spoilage. After opening a jar, check for off-odor, mold or spurting liquid.

Spoiled home-canned foods should be disposed of immediately, where it will not be eaten by people or pets.

Copyright Diane Prather, 2009.

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