Millions of Americans—including me—are hard at work canning, freezing, drying, pickling, and fermenting the abundance of late summer fruits and vegetables from our home gardens and local farms.
Surveys show a huge resurgence of interest in home gardening and buying direct from growers at farmers’ markets, pick-your-own operations, community-supported agriculture enterprises, and farmstands.
Besides a belief that home-grown and locally grown food has more flavor and nutrition, saves money, and supports their local economy, people cite as one big reason for buying local the alarming reports of massive food recalls due to bacterial contamination. They believe that knowing where their food comes from helps ensure its safety.
Foodborne illness: scary statistics
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that each year roughly 1 in 6 Americans (or 48 million people) gets sick from something they ate; 128,000 of them end up in the hospital, and 3,000 die.
But please don’t assume that knowing the farmer who produced your food, or growing and preserving your own fruits and vegetables offers a guarantee that your food is safe.
The only way to ensure safe food: follow to the letter the most up-to-date, tested, science-based methods for safe food handling, processing, and preparation. You'll find comprehensive food-preserving information online at the National Center for Home Food Preservation, based at the University of Georgia.
The Center reports that a national survey conducted in 2000 revealed that a high percentage of home food processors use practices that put them at high risk for foodborne illness and economic losses due to food spoilage.
Stick to current methods and recipes
Let go of that cherished family recipe for water-bath canned mincemeat. Don’t use the books and recipes you’ve relied on since the 1970s. Even books from a few years ago may contain information that won’t pass muster by today’s food-safety standards.
For example, tomatoes were always considered acidic enough (pH below 4.6) to process safely in a boiling-water bath. But a few years ago, researchers found that many of the varieties they tested, including some old favorites, weren’t acidic enough for safe water-bath canning and began recommending that home processors either can tomatoes in a pressure cooker or add bottled lemon juice, powdered citric acid, or vinegar to each jar of tomato product before processing.
Whether you’re taking to the canning kettle, the food dehydrator, or the big freezer for the first time or consider yourself a seasoned vet, make your big effort pay off as you package up the flavors of summer. Keep it from spoiling and keep it safe.
National Center for Home Food Preservation Everything you need to know about canning, freezing, drying, fermenting, pickling, curing and smoking, and common storage.
CDC page on foodborne illness Frequently asked questions about how and why food can make us sick.
Estimates and trends in foodborne illness Information about CDC's research into foodborne illness.
Five steps to food-safe home gardening Keep home-grown produce safe every step of the way.
Margaret Boyles lives in a wood-heated house in central New Hampshire. She grows vegetables, eats weeds, keeps chickens, swims in a backyard pond in summer, snowshoes in the surrounding woods in winter, and commutes by bike whenever possible.