Millions of Americans 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. Here are a few things you should keep in mind to keep your hard-earned harvest safe to eat.
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 homegrown 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 growing and preserving your own fruit and vegetables or knowing the farmer who produced your food offers a guarantee that it is safe.
Pickles by Chamille White/Shutterstock.
The only way to ensure safe food is to follow to the letter the most up-to-date, tested, science-based methods for safe food handling, processing, and preparation, such as those provided by the National Center for Home Food Preservation, based at the University of Georgia.
The Center reports that recent national surveys 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 on which you’ve relied 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 canner or add bottled lemon juice, powdered citric acid, or vinegar to each jar of tomato product before processing. See our Canning Guide to learn how to can foods safely.
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 the CDC’s research into foodborne illness.
Five steps to food-safe home gardening: Keep home-grown produce safe every step of the way.