New generations introduced to home food preservation by Alabama Extension System food safety team

AUBURN UNIVERSITY – Noting a growing interest in home food preservation, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System’s nine-member Food Safety Team is holding Master Food Preservation training throughout Alabama to introduce aspiring preservationists to the safest and most effective preservation methods.

Jean Weese, an Alabama Extension food safety specialist and Auburn University professor of poultry science, attributes the newfound interest in food preservation to the growing enthusiasm among many consumers for homegrown food and local farmers markets.

Weese and other members of the team are concerned, however, that many aspiring food preservationists, in their haste to master these techniques, are turning to the Internet rather than to the standards established and refined over decades by U.S. Department of Agriculture and land-grant university researchers.

Beginning last year, the team began reaffirming these standards by offering Master Food Preservation training throughout Alabama to people who are trying their hand at food preservation for the first time. The training covers all facets of food preservation – pressure canning, water-bath canning, freezing and drying – and is based only on USDA-prescribed recipes and procedures. The training is being conducted in part to address the spike in Internet-related food preservation questions team members have received in recent years.

“I get these phone calls from people who say they’re not pressure canning, they’re just water-bath canning based on some recipe they found on the Internet or an old family recipe,” Weese said, adding that many of these recipes do not follow USDA-recommended procedures.

Angela Treadaway, a regional Extension food safety agent from central Alabama, said longstanding family recipes should be updated from time to time.

While many food preservation novices view these recipes merely as options, Weese says they sometimes come down to life-and-death decisions because inadequately processed foods can lead to serious complications including exposure to deadly botulism.

“Many people are clueless about the dangers associated with botulism,” she said. “It’s one of the deadliest toxins to humans, yet most people know more about anthrax than botulism, even though botulism is deadlier.”

In the course of the training, food safety educators stress that adequate processing is the critical issue in home food preservation, especially with recipes involving low-acidic foods.

“Jams and jellies are not as big a concern because they are high acidic foods that provide an inhospitable environment for botulism,” Treadaway said. “But we emphasize being careful with things such as salsa and vegetable soups – cases where you’re mixing low- and high-acidic foods.”

Low-acidic foods, such as vegetables, always need to be pressure-canned, Treadaway said.

The risks associated with not following prescribed preservation practices was driven home earlier this year following the experience of Mike O’Connell, a 67-year-old state of Washington attorney.

O’Connell used an old family recipe to preserve some elk meat he had brought home from a hunting trip. He almost died a couple of days after consuming it, according to a report by KPLU, a National Public Radio-affiliated station in Seattle.

His mistake was shortcutting the pressure canning time based on the notion that the meat was thoroughly processed – a recipe for disaster, Weese said. His faulty canning practices had exposed him to deadly botulism.

“He took shortcuts, and he’s lucky to be alive,” Weese said.

While it is possible to can meat safely, Treadaway stresses that the process takes between 75 and 95 minutes – something that often proves more trouble than it’s worth to some canners.

For a comprehensive introduction to USDA canning procedures, visit the National Center for Home Food Preservation at: http://nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications_usda.html.

To contact an Extension regional agent in your area about Master Food Preservation training, go to the Alabama Extension Food Safety Team Website at http://www.aces.edu/go/389.

(Written by Jim Langcuster.)

Contact: Jim Langcuster, Alabama Cooperative Extension System, (334) 844-5686 (langcjc@auburn.edu), or Mike Clardy, Office of Communications and Marketing, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)