Safe Preserving: Time to Get Ready (and testing canner lids)

canning_foods07.jpgThe summer food preservation season will be here before we know it so it’s a good time to UW_Whitewaterstart getting ready. The National Center for Home Food Preservation offers tips for getting equipment ready for the season.

  • A pressure canner is essential for canning low-acid vegetables, meats, fish, and poultry. Two basic types are available. One has a dial gauge to indicate the pressure inside the canner; the other has a metal weighted gauge. Dial gauges must be tested for accuracy before each canning season.  Check the rubber gasket if your canner has one; it should be flexible and soft, not brittle, sticky or cracked. Also make sure any small pipes or ventports with openings are clean and open all the way through.
  • A boiling water canner is needed for canning other foods such as fruits, pickles, jellies and jams. The canner should be deep enough to allow at least one to two inches of water to boil over the tops of the jars. Both types of canners should have a rack in the bottom to keep jars off the bottom of the canner.
  • Inventory your jars and decide if you need to buy new jars this year. Inspect those you have for nicks, cracks or chips, especially around the top sealing edge. Nicks can prevent lids from sealing. Very old jars can weaken with age and repeated use; they break under pressure and heat.
  • Purchase new flat lids. Used lids should be thrown away. The screw bands are re-usable if they are not bent, dented or rusted.

A final must is reliable, up-to-date canning instructions. The Recipes link on the Safe & Healthy site has links to resources from the University of Wisconsin Extension and other reliable sources.

Dial gauge canners must be tested each year for accuracy. Ordering information and a how-to guide is available for the Presto Testing Unit. County offices should plan now to send master dial gauges to Presto for calibration. A sample letter is available. canner-check1

Remember, the Presto gauge testers are designed to be used only with lids from: Presto, Maid of Honor, Magic Seal, and National canners.

Interested in learning, or reviewing, how to test a dial gauge canner? There is a blog post and a link to a video to help you review.

Happy Spring…Safe Preserving! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Scientific Status of Organic Foods

Image courtesy of the Institute of Food Technologists

Image courtesy of the Institute of Food Technologists

The growth of the organic foods industry in the United States has been dramatic since the late 1990′s. It is estimated that organic sales increased by nearly 20% annually between 1997 and 2005, with consumer sales reaching $13.8 billion in 2005. While initial organic food production primarily involved small farms and local distribution of fresh produce, today’s organic food system is a complex combination of small and large food producers, local and global distribution networks, and a wide variety of products, including fruits, vegetables, meats, dairy, and processed foods. A scientific status summary has been published by the Institute of Food Technologists which reviews the current state of the organic foods industry.

Organic practices. Organic production can be defined as an ecological production management system that promotes and enhances biodiversity, biological cycles, and soil biological activity. It is based on minimal use of off-farm inputs and on management practices that restore, maintain, and enhance ecological harmony. U.S. regulations require that organic foods are grown without synthetic pesticides, growth hormones, antibiotics, modern genetic engineering techniques (including genetically modified crops), chemical fertilizers, or sewage sludge.

USDA-Organic-SealLabeling. The USDA has established standards for labeling of foods with the USDA organic seal. All foods labeled with the USDA organic seal must come from a certified farm or handling operation. All products labeled as “100% organic” must contain only organically produced ingredients; products labeled as “organic” must contain at least 95% organically produced ingredients. The other 5% of ingredients may come from the National List of Approved Substances. Products containing 100% and 95% organic ingredients may use the USDA organic seal. Products that contain at least 70% organic ingredients can be labeled “made with organic ingredients” and list up to 3 of those ingredients on the principal display panel; however, such products may not use the USDA organic seal. Products with less than 70% organic ingredients may only list which ingredients are organic on the information panel.

Nutrition and food safety. Organically produced fruits and vegetables possess fewer pesticide residues and lower nitrate levels than do conventional fruits and vegetables. In some cases, organic foods may have higher levels of plant secondary metabolites; this may be beneficial with respect to suspected antioxidants such as polyphenolic compounds, but also may be of potential health concern when considering naturally occurring toxins. Some studies have suggested potential increased microbiological hazards from organic produce or animal products due to the prohibition of antimicrobial use, yet other studies have not reached the same conclusion. Bacterial isolates from food animals raised organically appear to show less resistance to antimicrobial agents than those from food animals raised conventionally. On balance, there are no proven nutritional or food safety differences between organically produced foods and ingredients or those produced using conventional agricultural practices. Any food component exerts a health risk or benefit on a dose-related basis, and data do not yet exist to ascertain whether the differences in the levels of such chemicals between organic foods and conventional foods are of biological significance.

Other blog posts  have featured information on whether you should choose organic produce and on agricultural biotechnology (growing of genetically modified crops). Other resources include:

Stay safe and healthy! Barb

Safe Preserving: Yeah! for canned fruits and vegetables

fruit_vege2The majority of Americans do not consume enough fruits and vegetables. In fact, only 33% of Americans consume the recommended amount of fruits and only 27% consume the recommended amount of vegetables. A new study shows that canned fruits and vegetables can help bridge the dietary gap.

Popular media often emphasizes the point that only fresh fruits and vegetables are healthy, and many consumers believe this, but a new study by researchers from Michigan State University goes a long way to debunking this myth. Led by Dr. Steven Miller, assistant professor at Michigan State University’s Center for Economic Analysis, researchers looked at both the potential nutritional benefits and the economic benefits of consuming canned food.  In terms of nutritional benefits, researchers found that canned fruits and vegetables may well be just as healthy or healthier than their fresh counterparts. For example, canned tomatoes actually contain higher amounts of lycopene and B vitamins than fresh tomatoes. And the canning process makes fiber in beans and other vegetables more soluble to the human body.  While food processors and home canners may add sugar or salt to flavor canned fruits or vegetables, these ingredients are optional, and fruits and vegetables may be safely canned without them. Increasingly, processors are opting to manufacture fruits canned with little or no added sugar or fruit packed in juice, and vegetable processors are offering a greater variety of no-salt added products.

Also, the study determined that canned fruits and vegetables can stretch food budgets. Canned foods cost up to 50% less than frozen, and 20% less than fresh, and canned foods are much less likely to be wasted. Furthermore, when people live in areas with limited access to fresh produce, canned foods can fill this nutritional void.

And, canned fruits and vegetables may be safer to eat than fresh or frozen, a real plus. The heat used in canning is designed to destroy pathogens and spoilage organisms that can make people sick or harm product quality.

So  next time you open a jar of home-canned applesauce or green beans, or you take the can opener to a commercially canned fruit or vegetable product, you can feel good knowing that you are feeding your family food that is healthy for them.

Safe (and healthy) preserving! Barb

Safe Preserving: Time to Think of the Garden

With the snow melting, it’s time to start thinking of the summer garden. There are some excellent resources shared on a recent webinar Planning for a Successful Gardening Year. garden

Gardening resources

Print copies of these and many other resources are available from the Learning Store.

Another good source of information is the Wisconsin Master Gardener program. This dedicated group of county Extension educators and community volunteers shares their expertise for successful gardening year round. On Wednesday, May 7, 10-11 am, there will be an open Q&A session related to home and community gardening. Ask your questions- and as long as time allows UW-Extension will answer! More information is available on the People & Plants website.

Composing information 
A discussion of successful gardening often involves questions related to composting. This is one area where food safety matters!

Backyard composting (Washington State University)

Construction of home compost units (University of Florida)

How to build a compost bin (University of Missouri)

Preventing E. coli from garden to plate (Colorado State University)

Happy gardening! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Agricultural Biotechnology

One of the more controversial techniques in agriculture is biotechnology. At its essence, corn_fieldbiotechnology is the use of genetic tools to develop crop plants and farm animals with special traits; the introduction of herbicide resistance into agronomic crops is a good example.  Selective breeding of crop plants and farm animals is far from new. Farmers over the millennia have employed crossbreeding to modify various characteristics of plants and animals. Over the past 20 years, scientists simply discovered a way to do this faster and more precisely and we call this biotechnology.

Why biotechnology? Introduction of precise segments of genetic information into living organisms is the hallmark of modern biotechnology. Consider this analogy: if each unit of information in the genetic code of a wheat plant is represented by just one letter, it would take 1,700 books of 1,000 pages each (or 1.7 million pages) to describe the genetic information in each wheat plant.  Traditional techniques of plant breeding combine the genetic information of one wheat plant (all 1.7 million pages) with another wheat plant (another 1.7 million pages) in hopes of producing a better off-spring with a new trait, for example increased cold resistance.  Through biotechnology we insert discrete segments of genetic information into the genome of a plant, animal, or microorganism. In the wheat-plant example, biotechnology allows a scientist to replace just one segment in the 1.7 million pages of information in the wheat genome. We often refer to the product of such gene manipulation as a genetically modified organism or GMO. 

Food safety concerns. The US government and agencies such as the National Science Foundation have long held the belief that plants and other organisms produced using genetic engineering techniques posed no new or different risks to human health or the environment than those produced using other breeding methods. A new review (March 2014) of research dealing with genetically modified organisms, a review of 1783 scientific records published between 2002 and 2012,  provides extensive reassurance of the safety of these organisms. This review is published in the journal Critical Reviews in Biotechnology.

Nonetheless, genetically modified crops produced using biotechnology are specifically regulated by governments and may not be marketed until they have successfully passed a rigorous pre-market safety evaluation. On a case-by-case basis, it is determined if the new trait introduced into a crop is cause for safety concerns.

The U.S. is the largest producer of genetically modified crops.  A study by the Food Policy Institute at Rutgers University suggested that 60% to 70% of processed foods on U.S. grocery shelves have genetically modified ingredients. The most common genetically modified foods are soybeans, corn (maize), cotton, and rapeseed (canola) oil. That means many foods made in the U.S. containing corn or high-fructose corn syrup, foods made with soybeans, and foods made with cottonseed and canola oils could have genetically modified ingredients.

A review of the safety of genetically engineered foods, authored by Dr. Carl Winter, a food safety specialist at the University of California-Davis is available: Safety of genetically engineered food

The American Council on Science and Health also has produced a new video highlighting biotechnology.

Stay safe and healthy! Barb

Safe & Healthy: Salmonella

Image courtesy of BBC News.

Image courtesy of BBC News.

Every year, Salmonella is estimated to cause about 1.2 million illnesses in the United States, with about 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths – the top bacterial cause of foodborne hospitalizations and deathsSalmonella germs have been known to cause illness for over 100 years. They were discovered by an American scientist named Salmon, for whom they are named.

Most persons infected with Salmonella develop diarrhea, fever, and abdominal cramps 12 to 72 hours after infection. Salmonellosis, the illness caused by the bacteria, usually lasts 4 to 7 days. Although, most persons recover without treatment, in some persons, the diarrhea may be so severe that the patient needs to be hospitalized. In these patients, the Salmonella infection may spread from the intestines to the blood stream, and then to other body sites and can cause death unless the person is treated promptly with antibiotics. The elderly, infants, and those with impaired immune systems are more likely to have a severe illness.

Take care in the summer! Salmonellosis is more common in the summer than winter. Perhaps because we are more often eating outside of our homes at picnics and parties, cooking on the grill, or visiting local farms, it’s more important than ever in the summer to be Food Safe!

Image courtesy of the CDC.

Image courtesy of the CDC.

Because foods of animal origin may be contaminated with Salmonella, people should not eat raw or undercooked eggs, poultry, or meat. Raw eggs may be unrecognized in some foods, such as homemade Hollandaise sauce, Caesar and other homemade salad dressings, homemade ice cream, homemade mayonnaise, cookie dough, and frostings. Poultry and meat, including hamburgers, should be well-cooked, not pink in the middle. Persons also should not consume raw or unpasteurized milk or other dairy products. Produce should be thoroughly rinsed with clean water before peeling or eating.

The Centers for Disease Control offers these quick tips for preventing illness from Salmonella.

  • Cook poultry, ground beef, and eggs thoroughly. Do not eat or drink foods containing raw eggs, or raw (unpasteurized) milk. NEW temperature cooking charts are available.
  • If you are served undercooked meat, poultry or eggs in a restaurant or at a party, don’t hesitate to send it back to the kitchen or the grill for further cooking.
  • Wash hands, kitchen work surfaces, and utensils with soap and water immediately after they have been in contact with raw meat or poultry. For extra cleanliness, follow up cleaning of work surfaces and kitchen utensils with a sanitizing rinse in a dilute bleach solution: 1 teaspoon bleach per quart of water. Allow to air dry.
  • Rinse all fresh produce with clean water (no soap!) before eating or preparing. For netted melons like cantaloupe, rinse a whole melon in a dilute bleach solution before slicing or carving.
  • Wash hands after touching pets or farm animals. Outbreaks of salmonellosis have been reported due to contact with turtles and other reptiles, birds (including waterfowl), baby chicks, and pets.
  • Be particularly careful with foods prepared for infants, the elderly, and the immunocompromised.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently released new data showing the scope of Salmonella in the United States, 1968-2011.

Be food safe, Barb

Safe & Healthy: Egg Safety Basics

Eggs are often synonymous with Spring. Eggs are one of nature’s most nutritious and economical foods and feature prominently at spring holiday celebrations. A few basic steps will help keep your springtime egg-cellent and food safe.

Image courtesy of USDA

Image courtesy of USDA

Egg basics.Thorough cooking is an important step in making sure eggs are safe.

  • Scrambled eggs: Cook until firm, not runny.
  • Fried, poached, boiled, or baked: Cook until both the white and the yolk are firm.
  • Egg mixtures, such as casseroles: Cook until the center of the mixture reaches 160 °F when measured with a food thermometer.

The perfect hard boiled egg is easy to prepare. Place cold eggs in a sauce pan, cover by 1-2 inches of cold water. Cover pan, place on the stove and bring to a boil over high heat. Once water is rapidly boiling, turn off the heat; keeping the pan covered (no peaking!). Set the timer for 15 minutes (for large eggs). When the timer rings, rinse eggs under cold running water, dry, and store in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to one week.

egg_datingEgg product dating. Does the date mean ‘too late?’  All eggs must have a best-by date stamped on the carton. Are eggs safe to eat past this date? YES. Properly refrigerated, eggs are considered safe for consumption 4 to 5 weeks (!) beyond the date marked on the package.

Egg recipes: playing it safe. You can make those family-favorite recipes egg-safe with a few tips.

  • Homemade ice cream is safe if you do one of the following:
    • Heat the egg-milk ice cream base. Heat it gently and use a food thermometer to ensure that it reaches 160°F prior to churning.
    • Use pasteurized eggs or egg products.
  • Meringue-topped pies should be safe if baked at 350°F for about 15 minutes. But avoid chiffon pies and fruit whips made with raw, beaten egg whites — instead, substitute pasteurized dried egg whites, whipped cream, or a whipped topping.
  • Adapting Recipes: If your recipe calls for uncooked eggs, make it safe by:
    • Heating the eggs in one of the recipe’s other liquid ingredients over low heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches 160°F. Then, combine the egg mixture with the other ingredients and complete the recipe.
    • Or using pasteurized eggs or egg products.

Ever wonder what determines whether an egg is white or brown, the best way to store eggs, and how to prevent illness from Salmonella linked to eggs? Check out the  American Egg Board web site for answers.

And for more information:

Stay food safe! Barb

Safe Preserving: Maple Syrup Season!

Making maple syrup is a time-honored tradition in many parts of Wisconsin, and it is as much of an art as a science. Even though sap does run in other trees such as birch and elm in early spring, maples produce more and sweeter sap than any other tree.

Maple sap collection. Image courtesy of University of Maine.

Maple sap collection. Image courtesy of University of Maine.

Sap collection. Once trees are tapped, a collecting container is placed at the site to catch the sap as it flows.  A major goal in maple production is to gather and process the sap as quickly as possible. As a general rule, only buckets specifically manufactured for maple collection should be used. Certainly no container containing lead, lead-containing paint, or lead solder should be used. The state-of-the-art maple sap collection system is a plastic tubing system.

Evaporation. Once the sap is collected, it is boiled to remove water and concentrate the syrup.  During the evaporation process, sap is concentrated to the desired density and flavor and color develops as a result of chemical reactions that occur during heating. The longer the sap is boiled, the darker it becomes. It may take 43 or more gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup! Always use equipment designed for contact with food in the manufacture of maple syrup. The concentration of the sap to the right point is key to the safety and the quality during storage.

Hot packing into jars. Once maple sap has been processed into maple syrup and the correct density is obtained, the syrup is ready for filtering and packing. Syrup is best filtered while it is still hot (185° to 190°F). To prevent contamination of finished syrup by yeast or mold growth, finished syrup must be hot packed. Collect quart-size, or smaller, glass containers and new lids, clean in warm, soapy water, rinse and then sanitize. Sanitize using a bleach solution of 1 teaspoon bleach per quart of warm water, or by boiling for 10 minutes.  Fill clean, hot jars with hot syrup, 180ºF or hotter, apply lid and immediately invert. Hold jars upside down for 2  minutes, then turn right side up and set aside for cooling.

Storing and handling. Allow jars to cool before storing. Cooling will be more rapid, and the quality of the product will be maintained, if air can circulate around containers as they are cooling. Pure maple syrup should be kept in a cool, dark place for up to two years until opened and then refrigerated after opening where it will last one year. If excess water is present or if containers are not clean when filled, there may be the growth of bacteria, yeast or mold during storage. Any time you see evidence of microbial growth, the product should be discarded. Some molds and bacteria can produce toxins as they grow, making the syrup unsafe to consume.

More information can be found online:

Safe preserving! Barb




Safe & Healthy: The 5 Second Rule

toast_floorWe’ve all done it: a piece of food falls on the floor and we immediately pick it up while saying “Five-second rule!” Is the 5-second rule fact or fiction? Two studies from British Universities in the last several years, and one published research paper have investigated the truth, or fiction, behind the 5-second rule. Researchers from two British universities: Manchester Metropolitan University (Manchester) and Aston University’s School of Life and Health Sciences (Birmingham) monitored the transfer of bacteria from contaminated flooring to a variety of foods, including bread with jam, cooked pasta, ham, cookies, and dried fruit. Contact time lasted from 3 to 30 seconds.

In the first study at Manchester University, researchers dropped food onto a smooth contaminated floor, retrieved the food after 3, 5, or 10 seconds, and then looked to see what would grow on the food. The study revealed that dropped foods with a high salt or sugar content, such as ham or toast and jam, were safer to eat after being retrieved, as there was less chance of harmful bacteria surviving on such items.

But what if your intent is to eat the food right away? Most of us pick up dropped food and pop it right into our mouths. In the second study, researchers at Aston University studied the transfer of the common bacteria Escherichia coli (E. coli) and Staphylococcus aureus from contaminated carpet, laminate, and tile to the various foods. Researchers in this study found time an extremely important factor in bacterial transfers, with the type of flooring also having an effect. For example, bacteria had less chance of transferring to food dropped on carpeting, and a far greater chance of transferring to food dropped on laminate or tiled surfaces, especially when food was moist and left on the floor for more than 5 seconds.

When researchers at Ashton University surveyed people who employ the 5-second rule, they found that 87% of people surveyed said they would eat food dropped on the floor, or already have done so, and the majority of those (55%) were women.

Publication of research provides critical peer review. In research published in this area, scientists at Clemson University (South Carolina) studied the transfer of Salmonella Typhimurium from wood, tile or carpet to bologna and bread. First, scientists applied Salmonella to flooring and determined that the bacteria can survive for up to 4 weeks. When bacteria transferred to food, it happened quickly, with 99% of bacteria transferred within the first 5 seconds of food-flooring contact. Transfer of Salmonella from carpet from very low (less than 0.5%), but higher from wood or tile (5-68%). Ref: J. Applied Microbiology. 2006. 102:945-953.

Conclusions. Bacteria can survive on typical household flooring surfaces for many weeks (the same is true for highly contagious viruses). Try getting into the habit of cleaning floors, especially those in the kitchen and bathroom, on a regular basis. And think twice about picking something up from the floor and popping it into your mouth. Even 5 seconds may be too many! Stay food safe and healthy, Barb

Safe & Healthy: Bisphenol A

Earlier this month (February 2014), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released experimental results that suggest that bisphenol A does not affect human health at low doses. What does this mean for consumers?

Image from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Image from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

What is bisphenol A? Bisphenol A, more commonly known as BPA, is a chemical widely used to make polycarbonate plastics and epoxy resins. Polycarbonate plastics are found in some food and drink packaging such as water and baby bottles, compact discs, impact-resistant safety equipment, and medical devices including those used in hospital settings. Epoxy resins are used to coat metal products such as food cans, bottle tops, and water supply pipes. BPA can also be found in certain thermal paper products, including some cash register and ATM receipts. Some dental sealants and composites may also contribute to BPA exposure.

How does BPA get into the body? The primary source of exposure to BPA for most people is through the diet. While air, dust, and water are other possible sources of exposure, BPA in food and beverages accounts for the majority of daily human exposure. Bisphenol A can leach into food from the protective internal epoxy resin coatings of canned foods and from consumer products such as polycarbonate tableware, food storage containers, water bottles, and baby bottles. BPA can also be found in breast milk.

Why are people concerned about BPA? One reason people may be concerned about BPA is because human exposure to BPA is widespread. The 2003-2004 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III) conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found detectable levels of BPA in 93% of 2517 urine samples from people six years and older. The CDC NHANES data are considered representative of exposures in the U.S. Prior to the February 2014 report, parents may have been concerned because some animal studies reported effects in fetuses and newborns exposed to BPA.

The report issued this month by the FDA and the National Institutes of Health indicates that BPA exposure at low doses (2.5 to 2,700 µg per kg body weight per day) did not produce effects in rat studies. The exposure at even the lowest level was 70 times higher than any realistic human exposure.

What can you do to minimize exposure to BPA? Even though evidence is pointing to the safety of low-dose exposure to BPA, if you are concerned you can make personal choices to reduce exposure:

  • Don’t microwave polycarbonate plastic food containers. Polycarbonate is strong and durable but over time it may break down from repeated use at high temperatures.
  • Avoid plastic containers with the #7 on the bottom unless they are specifically labeled BPA-free.
  • When possible, opt for glass, porcelain or stainless steel containers for hot food or liquids.
  • Choose fresh or frozen foods over commercially canned foods.
  • Use infant formula bottles that are BPA-free and look for toys that are labeled BPA-free.

What about home canning lids? The standard 2-piece canning lids are now BPA free!  Jarden Home Brands (Ball Canning) and other major companies removed BPA from canning lids effective  2013.

The National Toxicology program has more information available:

The Public Broadcasting Corporation reported on a story in 2008 by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on this issue. Stay food safe and healthy! Barb

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