Safe & Healthy: Don’t Wash Bagged Greens

DoleSeptember is Food Safety Month, and the Partnership for Food Safety Education reminders consumers not to wash bagged greens. 

Your intuition says giving bagged greens labeled ‘ready-to-eat,’ ‘washed,’ or ‘tripled wash’ an extra rinse couldn’t possibly hurt.  But rinsing ready-to-eat greens won’t make then safer and, in fact, may increase the potential for cross contamination. Bagged salad greens come in sealed packages with ‘best by’ dates stamped on the package.

Pathogens that may be on your hands or on kitchen surfaces or utensils could find their way onto your greens in the process of handling them.  So, give yourself a few more minutes for other kitchen chores by not washing pre-washed greens, knowing that you are doing your best to ensure food safety for family and friends.

Colleagues at work need convincing? Download and post the myth busters’ poster on this topic.  Stay food safe! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Mexican Vanilla

vanillabean2_enlOn occasion I will be asked about the safety of vanilla purchased by someone while on vacation in Mexico. Tourists tempted to pick up bargains south of the border or from Mexican food-stores in the United States, should beware of one bargain that isn’t a good buy—a so-called “vanilla” flavoring or extract that isn’t vanilla flavoring or extract at all, but instead is made from a completely different plant material that contains coumarin. Coumarin is a substance with potential toxic side effects banned from food in the U.S.

This flavoring product may smell like vanilla extract, taste like vanilla extract, and be offered at a cheap price, but it could present a significant risk to some people’s health.

Pure vanilla flavoring and extract are made with the extract of beans from the vanilla plant, a type of orchid that grows as a vine. The product containing coumarin is made from the extract of beans from the tonka tree, an entirely different plant that belongs to the pea family. Tonka bean extract contains coumarin, a compound related to warfarin, which is in some blood-thinning medications. Eating food containing coumarin may be especially risky for people taking blood-thinning drugs because the interaction of coumarin and blood thinners can increase the likelihood of bleeding.

Not all vanilla from Mexico, or purchased in Mexico, is harmfulReal vanilla extract and flavoring products produced in Mexico or other countries and legally imported into the U.S. should not contain coumarin and should be safe for use in foods.  If you suspect that vanilla might not be the ‘real thing,’ follow these tips for safety sake.

  • Look for ‘vanilla bean’ in the ingredient list on the label. If the label has ‘tonka bean’ listed or if there is no ingredient list, do not purchase the product.
  • Some bottles list ‘coumarin free‘ as a way inform tourists that the product is safe. But be sure to still look at the ingredient list in case the label is incorrect or misleading.
  • Don’t buy a food product in the U.S. that is not labeled in English. The Food and Drug Administration requires food sold in the U.S. to have complete English-language labeling, even if these food products were manufactured in Mexico, China, or another country where English is not the native language. [The exception is Puerto Rico - food products produced in Puerto Rico are not required to to be labeled in English.]

So, take a moment to consider your purchase in order to protect the healthy of family and friends. Stay food safe!  Barb

Safe & Healthy: Allergies to Gluten-Free Ingredient

Image courtesy of Bob's Red Mill.

Image courtesy of Bob’s Red Mill.

A Kansas State University food safety specialist is quoted in Stone Hearth Newsletters as noting that a popular new ingredient in gluten-free products could be allergenic.

Lupin, a legume belonging to the same plant family as peanuts, is showing up as a wheat replacement in an increasing number of gluten-free products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is now issuing an alert, urging consumers with peanut and soybean allergies to read labels before buying these products.

“Lupin is a yellow-colored bean that’s very popular in Europe, Mediterranean countries, Australia and New Zealand,” said Karen Blakeslee, Kansas State University extension specialist in food science and coordinator of the Rapid Response Center. “However, it is new to the United States and because of that, many consumers have never heard of it and may not realize that lupin has the same protein that causes allergic reactions to peanuts and soybeans.”

Allergic reactions can have various symptoms, including hives, swelling of the lips, vomiting, breathing difficulties and anaphylactic shock. Even those without allergies to legume products need to be aware of the ingredient.

“You can become allergic to something at any point in your life,” Blakeslee said. “If you do start seeing any symptoms of an allergic reaction, stop eating the food immediately and contact your doctor.”

The FDA expects lupin to become a popular product in the gluten-free arena because of its many health qualities. It is high in protein and in dietary fiber — which helps lower cholesterol — and is low in fat.

Manufacturers are required to list lupin on the food label. The FDA is actively monitoring complaints of lupin allergies by U.S. consumers.

There are a number of excellent resources on food allergies:

Stay food safe. Barb

Safe & Healthy: Tips on Preparing Chicken Safely

A new study involving 120 volunteers shows that consumers have a lot to learn about preparing chicken safely at home! Raw_chickenResearchers at the University of California-Davis recruited 120 volunteers to prepare chicken and a salad in their homes.  Meal preparation was video-recorded and participants were surveyed about the experience afterwards.  Survey results indicated that consumers believed they were knowledgeable about safe-food handling, and everyone indicated that they knew that people could become ill from eating raw or undercooked chicken.

The video-recorded results, however, suggest that consumers have a lot to learn. The findings:

Hand washing

  • 65% of meal preparers did not wash their hands prior to meal preparation.
  • 40% did not wash their hands after handling raw chicken.
  • 45% washed the chicken prior to preparation.  An earlier blog post gives reasons not to wash chicken (wash your hands instead!).
  • When hand washing was performed, duration was less than 20 seconds in 90% of the cases, and 30% of individuals failed to use soap.


  • 48% of volunteers surveyed indicated they owned a cooking thermometer and, of those, 75% said they used it regularly…but further inquiry did not support these responses.
  • Only 29% knew the correct safe temperature for chicken – 165°F or higher.
  • 95% of meal preparers did not use a thermometer to measure doneness, instead relying on appearance to judge when the chicken was done.
  • Researchers did measure temperature and found that 60% of the time the chicken had reached a safe temperature when the consumer considered the chicken done, 165°F or higher.
  • 39% of households declined to continue cooking the chicken, even when the researcher checked the temperature and found it to be unsafe (less than 165°F). These consumers declared they did not like ‘dry chicken.’

In order to help prevent foodborne illness linked to chicken, there are 4 easy steps to fighting bacteria:

  • CookCook to proper temperatures (and use a thermometer so you know it’s done)
  • Clean – Wash hands and surfaces often (using soap to help remove bacteria)
  • Chill – Keep cold foods cold (to keep bacteria from growing)
  • Separate – Prevent cross contamination (so that bacteria don’t spread)

Remember to stay food safe! Barb

Safe Preserving: Pickled Eggs

pickled_eggWith vegetable pickling season here, I receive many questions about another family favorite – pickled eggs. Pickled eggs are peeled, hard-cooked eggs in a solution consisting basically of vinegar, salt, spices, and perhaps other seasonings. Some people prefer to use red beet juice (from canned beets) as part of the liquid for a rosy pickled egg.  Pickling solutions are heated to boiling, simmered to dissolve spice and combine flavors, and poured over the peeled eggs.  Egg whites tend to be more tender if a boiling solution is used instead of room temperature solutions.

Eggs used for pickling should have clean, sound shells.  Small or medium eggs are usually a good choice for pickling so the seasoning can penetrate into the egg.  Fresh eggs are the best to use for pickling to ensure the highest quality possible since the eggs will be stored over a relatively long period of time. However, eggs at least a few days old will peel better after boiling.  Instructions for the perfect hard boiled egg can be found in an earlier blog post.

 Tested recipes for pickled eggs can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation website and include recipes for:

  • Red Beet Eggs
  • Sweet and Sour Eggs
  • Dark and Spicy Eggs
  • Cidered Eggs
  • Dilled Eggs 
  • Pineapple Pickled Eggs

Each of these recipes uses 12 peeled, hard-cooked eggs.  The directions for each recipe are to bring all the ingredients except the eggs to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer for 5 minutes.  Pack no more than one dozen peeled, hard-cooked eggs loosely into a warm, pre-sterilized quart jar (or other similar size container which can be closed tightly).  Pour the hot pickling solution over the eggs in the jar, cover, and refrigerate immediately. There needs to be plenty of pickling solution; enough to completely cover the eggs. After adding the pickling solution and refrigerating, the eggs require some time to season (i.e., pick up the flavors from the pickling brine). Keep them refrigerated at all times. If small eggs are used, 1 to 2 weeks are usually allowed for seasoning to occur.  Medium or large eggs may require 2 to 4 weeks to become well seasoned.  Use the eggs within 3 to 4 months for best quality.

Safe preserving! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Wash those kitchen towels!

dryingdishesA new study suggests that if you are looking for contamination in your kitchen, you just might check those kitchen towels. A recent study published in the journal Food Protection Trends investigated the occurrence of bacteria in kitchen towels often used to dry dishes, hands, and other surfaces in the home kitchen.

Several studies have documented the common occurrence of large populations of fecal bacteria in kitchen sponges and clothes used when washing dishes by hand, where the moist environment and collected food residues create an ideal environment for the growth of bacteria.
In the August study, a total of 82 kitchen hand towels were collected from households in 5 major cities in the United States and Canada and the numbers of  total bacteria, fecal bacteria, and Escherichia coli (nonpathogenic, generic) in each towel were determined. Households that provided the towels answered a survey related to towel use and frequency of cleaning including: age of towel (in months), frequency of washing of towel in days per month, towel frequency of use, and the number of days since the towel was last washed.
All kitchen towels collected in the 5 cities had at least 1,000 bacteria per towel and some had 1,000,000,000 per towel. The overall average across the 82 kitchen towels was 100,000,000  per towel. Fecal bacteria were detected in 89.0% of towels and E. coli in 25.6% of towels.
The results show that kitchen towels can be a source of bacteria that can cross-contaminate otherwise clean dishes, hands, and surfaces.  Frequent cleaning is a must! The best choice for high-bacteria kitchen clean ups, such as wiping up after handling raw meat, fish, poultry or eggs, is to use a paper towel. If you don’t use paper towels for clean-ups, here are some kitchen safety tips:
  • If you use a kitchen towel, launder it after each meal.
  • If you can’t do laundry right away, remove the towel from the kitchen to a rack for drying, and then launder once you have enough for a load.
  • Use hot-water machine washing followed by machine drying to help reduce the number of bacteria harboring in your towel.
  • Keep one set of towels just for hand-drying in the kitchen, and another for drying dishes and counter-tops. Launder at the end of each day. Color-coating the towels, i.e. green ones for clean hands and red ones for kitchen surfaces, will help prevent cross contamination. And if you have young children, color-coding towels will make learning easier.
  • Don’t hand-dry dishes with a cloth towel. Allow dishes to drain in a drying rack, well separated to facilitate air movement.
Stay food safe! Barb

Safe Preserving: Garlic

garlicGarlic can be easy to store, preserve, and enjoy year round.  Garlic is a member of the Amaryllis family that also includes leeks, onions and shallots. It is a perennial with an underground bulb (head) composed of pungent bulblets commonly called cloves.

The University of California: Davis has an excellent resource Garlic: Safe Methods to Store, Preserve and Enjoy that provides a bounty of helpful hints on preserving this kitchen staple. In this bulletin you will find information on:

  • Buying garlic or harvesting it from your own garden.
  • Storing garlic.
  • Peeling and roasting garlic.
  • Freezing and drying garlic.
  • Storing garlic in wine or vinegar. [Canning garlic or storing it in oil can be very unsafe.]

The publication from the University of California also answers the oft-asked question: Why did my garlic turn blue? Quite often when adding garlic to pickled products, the garlic turns a blue-pink-purple color after canning.  Garlic contains anthocyanins which are water-soluble pigments that can turn color under acidic conditions. [You may have noticed the same phenomenon with some landscape plants such as hydrangeas.] The strength of the color change is based on the maturity of the clove and can also vary by variety. If you notice this happening, be assured that as long as you follow a tested recipe for pickling, the pickles are still safe to consume!

Safe preserving! Barb


Safe Preserving: Canning Homemade Soup

Veggie_SoupCanning soup at home is an excellent way to preserve your vegetables with or without small portions of meats or seafood. The key to canning a safe, high quality soup is to follow directions provided by a reliable science-based source like USDA or the University of Wisconsin-Extension.

Vegetable-based soups are usually mixtures of low-acid ingredients and they need to be pressure canned by a process that has been developed by research methods known to control for botulism food poisoning.  Botulism is a potentially fatal foodborne disease.  Spores of the organism (Clostridium botulinum) that causes botulism can survive normal cooking temperatures and times.  The extra heat in pressure canning is needed to actually destroy the spores so when the closed jar sits at room temperature in storage, the spores will not grow and produce the deadly botulinal toxin.

There is only one version of pressure canning directions for home canned soups available from USDA and found on the website for the National Center for Home Food Preservation. The USDA procedure  allows you to add your choice of vegetables, dried beans or peas, meat, poultry, or seafood. It does not allow you to include noodles or other pasta, rice, flour, cream, milk or other thickening or dairy ingredients. Directions for this soup need to be carefully followed, or an unsafe product may result.

If dried beans or peas are used, they must first be fully rehydrated (for each cup of dried beans or peas add 3 cups of water,  boil 2 minutes, remove from heat, soak 1 hour, heat to boiling, drain). The recipe should not include items such as summer squash, unpeeled potatoes, or mashed winter squash – an unsafe product may result.

Each vegetable should be selected, washed, prepared and cooked as you would for canning a ‘hot pack’ according to USDA directions for canning vegetables and tomatoes.

If meat is added, it should be covered with water and cooked until tender, then cooled and the bones removed.  Next, all the prepared ingredients should be cooked together with hot water, broth or tomatoes, to boiling, and boiled for 5 minutes. Salt can be added to taste, if desired. Do not fully cook the soup before filling jars; the canning process completes the cooking at the same time it eliminates harmful microorganisms.

A very important step in these procedures is that jars should only be filled halfway with the mixture of solids.  The rest of the jar is filled with the hot liquid leaving 1-inch headspace.  The recipe must be processed in a pressure canner, even if it tomato-based.  Be sure to adjust for elevation for locations above 1,000 feet. Safe preserving! Barb

Safe Preserving: What’s up with tomato canning instructions?

canned tomatoesI want to process tomatoes in my pressure canner. When I look at Tomatoes Tart and Tasty, it says that I process crushed tomatoes (quartered, hot packed; p. 13) 15 minutes for quarts and 20 minutes for pints. This must be a misprint! It should take LESS time to process pints than quarts. 

Tomato canning instructions can seem very confusing.  The boiling water canning instructions often make sense, e.g. 45 minutes for quarts and 35 minutes for pints of crushed tomatoes. But the pressure canner instructions seems to be incorrect.

The reason for the confusion is that research-tested pressure canning instructions for most tomato products allow processing at 5-6 psi (pounds of pressure), when we normally process at a minimum of 10-11 psi.  When canning crushed tomatoes in a pressure canner, the following instructions apply:

Dial gauge canner

  • Pints – 20 minutes @ 6 psi (pounds of pressure)
  • Quarts – 15 minutes @ 11 psi

Weighted gauge canner

  • Pints – 20 minutes @ 5 psi (up to 1,000 feet)
  • Quarts – 15 minutes @ 10 psi (up to 1,000 feet)

So, you can process pint jars at a lower pressure than for quarts, but you must process for a longer period of time at the lower pressureMany home canners (myself included) choose, instead, to process pint jars using the recommended processing times for quarts. This is perfectly safe to do!  In my case, I use 11 psi  (dial gauge) when canning items such as green beans and carrots in my pressure canner, so it’s just easier for me to use the 11 psi ‘standard’ for tomatoes too. I process pint jars of crushed tomatoes for 15 minutes at 11 psi, the same as I would for quarts. If I want to, I can even mix pints and quarts in the same canner.

It has been a great tomato-growing season in many parts of Wisconsin.  Remember to use safe, up-to-date recommendations when canning tomatoes; including adding acid for safety-sake. A recent blog post explains why. Safe preserving! Barb


Safe Preserving: Peppers

Image courtesy of the University of California-Davis.

Image courtesy of the University of California-Davis.

Peppers have grown in popularity in recent years and a wide variety are available at farm markets, in neighborhood grocery stores, and for us to grow in our own gardens. Native to the Americas, most varieties of peppers belong to the Capsicum family. Almost all peppers turn from green to red, yellow, orange or purple when fully ripe. The colored peppers add color to any meal. Green bell peppers are often harvested before they are ripe which gives them a longer shelf life. Peppers can range from the mellow bell pepper to the fiery-hot Thai or habanero peppers.

The University of California-Davis has an excellent bulletin Peppers: Safe Methods to Store, Preserve and Enjoy that will help you make the most of this garden and kitchen staple.

In this bulletin you will find information on:

  • Storing fresh peppers.
  • Freezing plain or roasted peppers.
  • Drying peppers.
  • Pickling peppers (boiling water canning).
  • Canning roasted peppers (pressure canning).
  • Preparing marinated pickled pepper (boiling water canning).

As well as recipes for pepper relish, hot pepper jelly, and apricot (hot) pepper jelly!  All safe, and creative, ways to preserve the bounty of the season.

New Mexico State University also has an excellent resource Home Canned Sweet Spreads Made with Green Chili that will allow you to add spice to your family table. Recipes include Apple Green Chili Butter, Pineapple Green Chili Marmalade,  and Raspberry Green Chili Jam. There is also a recipe for Sweet and Sour Pork with Tomato Green Chili Pineapple Preserves and instructions on making the tomato chili preserves that top the pork.

Safe preserving note: Peppers do not vary appreciably in acidity and can be substituted measure for measure in any tested recipe. If you family likes hot salsa, feel free to substitute 1 cup of hot peppers, chopped, for 1 cup of chopped mild peppers in any tested recipe, and vice versa. Safe preserving! Barb


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