Food Safety

How Clean is That Refrigerator of Yours?

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

healthy foodThe invention of mechanical refrigeration was one of the most important developments in the history of keeping food safe (others include the pasteurization of milk and commercial canning).  Ask anyone who has suffered through the aftermath of a hurricane or ice storm without the benefit of electricity to keep their food cold. But even a plugged-in fridge, humming along and doing its job, can be a place that harbors pathogens that cause foodborne illness or spoilage organisms that result in food waste.

A little microbiology lesson might be helpful before we go on. When talking about food, food safety and safe food storage, we often discuss the microbes that can cause foodborne illness. Especially we talk about how to prevent or eliminate them from our food or food preparation areas. The foodborne microorganisms that cause illness are called pathogens. Certain strains of bacteria such as Salmonella, E. coli, Listeria, and Staphylococcus are pathogens—they can cause foodborne illness. Some viruses and parasites can be the source of foodborne illness as well.

Other microorganisms may cause food to spoil. Spoilage organisms are generally not pathogenic.  Spoilage makes food unappetizing, so we are unlikely to eat it. But the slimy, discolored, smelly, or fermented foods that result from the action of spoilage organisms are not as apt to make us sick, though some molds produce toxins that do have serious health effects.

The “good” thing about spoilage organisms is that they tell us that they are there. They make food smell funny or look weird. They turn food odd colors (cottage cheese that looks pink) or make things fizzy (juice that is fermented). We know it is best not to eat them. Spoilage organisms, will grow or multiply quite well at colder temperatures. This is why milk can spoil, juice can ferment and cheese or fruit can get moldy in your refrigerator.

On the other hand, pathogens are quiet, invisible. We never know for sure if they are lurking in the lettuce or hanging out on the chicken. Therefore we must take special care to prevent their growth or their spread to other foods or food-contact surfaces. We must assume that they are always there and do our best to control them.

Generally speaking, pathogens do not grow well in refrigerator temperatures. They prefer what we call the “danger zone” of approximately 41 degrees F to 135 degrees F. This is why it is recommended that you keep your refrigerator temperature at no more than 40 degrees F. If E. coli, Salmonella or other pathogens contaminate your food before you refrigerate it, these microbes will remain on the food. Refrigeration does not kill them, though it does limit their growth. One exception to this is Listeria. This bacteria actually likes the cold and can grow in temperatures as low as 32-45 degrees F.

Clean your fridge regularly

The best way to keep your refrigerator from being the source of a bout with foodborne illness is to keep it clean. A 2013 study of home kitchen environments conducted by the NSF, an organization that sets standards for cleanability of commercial food equipment, found that two of the “germiest” areas in the kitchen were the meat and vegetable bins in the home refrigerator.  They found Salmonella, Listeria, E. coli, yeast, and mold.

Prevention of messes is the first step to a clean refrigerator. When storing raw meat, poultry, or fish, be sure to separate them from other foods. Store them in a way that prevents juices from contaminating other foods or refrigerator shelves—place them on a plate or tray. Store fresh raw fruits or vegetables loosely in plastic bags or storage containers. Often it makes sense not to wash fresh produce until you are ready to use it, so it is especially important to keep fresh produce in the fruit and vegetable bin if possible. Keep eggs in their original carton. Leftovers should be refrigerated in closed containers, date labeled, so that they are used before spoilage organisms set up shop. If you have a leaky milk carton, put a plate under it.

If spills do occur, wipe them up immediately. If meat, poultry or fish juices contaminate a ready to eat food (lettuce, cut fruit, cheese), it is best to toss it.

A least weekly—maybe the night before garbage pickup–go through your fridge and throw out any perishable foods that are past their prime. Check dates on milk, yogurt and soft cheeses. They generally are best if used by 5-7 days after the “use by” date. Toss anything that is moldy, slimy, or just looks or smells spoiled. Take a look at your leftovers: generally, leftovers should be kept no longer than 3-5 days. Throw out those that have been there too long.

A thorough, deep cleaning should be done monthly.

  • Empty the food out of the refrigerator. In summer months, it may make sense to put some things in a cooler with ice—especially raw meat, fish, cut fruits or vegetables, and leftovers.
  • Take out shelving, drawers, and any other removable parts.
  • Wash shelving, drawers, and any other removable parts by hand with warm, soapy water. Dry with a CLEAN towel. (Air drying is preferable, but you want to get this job done quickly and get food back into the refrigerator within an hour or so.)
  • Wipe the inside of the empty refrigerator with warm, soapy water, then wipe with clean water to rinse off soap. Dry with a clean towel.
  • If you want to, mix one tablespoon of liquid household bleach (unscented) with a gallon of water and wipe the interior and any shelving with this sanitizing solution. Always clean first, then sanitize. Allow to air dry. Sanitizing alone will not be effective.
  • Finally, as you place items back in the refrigerator, take time to wipe off container surfaces.
  • Wipe off door handles and be sure, if you have a water/ice dispenser on the outside of your fridge, to clean that as well.

For more information about safe food preparation and storage check out our website at www.foodsafety.uconn.edu or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at www.ladybug.uconn.edu.

Storage Times For Refrigerated Foods (www.fsis.usda.gov)
NOTE: These short but safe time limits will help keep home-refrigerated food from spoiling.

food storage times

Why Farmers Are Pleading: Leave Your Dogs Home

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

UConn Extension Educator – Food Safety

Jonathan HuskyOver the years I have worked with many fruit and vegetable farmers, as they have become the focus of new food safety regulations. Some of these farms sell their product through pick-your-own (PYO) operations, some at an on-farm stand; others have CSA (community supported agriculture) programs. More and more of them are no longer allowing visiting dogs on their property. Some customers are not taking it well.

It can be difficult after years of being allowed to bring the dog along to the farm as you pick apples or visit the market. There might have even been a farm dog or two lounging in the back of the store or running up and down the aisles. But, things have changed, including food safety standards of practice. Believe it when I say, this is much harder on the farmer.

Starting with the voluntary Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) program over ten years ago, it has become the standard for dogs, cats, and even wandering chickens to be reined in during the harvest season, in particular. These new practices and rules came about when fruits and vegetables hit the top of the “most likely to cause a foodborne illness” charts. Outbreaks associated with fresh produce are making more people sick than seafood, hamburger, or chicken. The new federal Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Produce Safety Rule, adopted due to this increase in association with outbreaks, will result in food safety inspections of some of the larger farms in Connecticut—and more attention will be given to where Kitty or Spot are roaming.

Cats can no longer be used as pest control in a packinghouse. Chickens cannot be free ranging in the lettuce fields. Pet dogs should not be allowed to defecate near the squash vines. Animal feces can be the source of Salmonella, E. coli and other disease causing microbes associated with foodborne illness. Of course, this is not limited to domesticated animals. Wildlife must be carefully monitored, and, when possible, managed with fences or repellents, such as an air cannon. Outbreaks have been associated with feces on produce. It only makes sense to try to reduce the risk.

So consider the farmer and the burden visiting pets may place on them. Dogs make great pets, but they come with some bad habits that may have an impact on the safety of the food a farm grows and sells. What are you going to do when at a moment you are distracted, perhaps paying your bill; your dog lifts its leg on a produce display, or box of apples at the farmers’ market? Even if the owner attempts to be fastidious about cleaning up after a dog’s mess, it’s unlikely that all traces of poop can be removed. It will be left to be tracked throughout the market or growing area. Chances are you are petting your dog, and then choosing the perfect apple without even thinking twice about it.

While food safety is one concern, customer safety can certainly be another reason for the “NO DOGS ALLOWED” signs. Dogs will be dogs, and no matter how
well trained, dog bites, dog fights and other unpleasant contacts with other customers can sometimes be problematic. Some folks may be allergic to your dog. It would be much better if you just buy some gourmet home-made dog treats at the market and bring them home to her.

Yes, it is true that some farmers’ markets and even some pick your own farms still allow patrons to bring their pets along for the ride. It is a risky choice they make. Please follow the rules at the farm you choose to visit—and thank the farmer for their concern for customer health and wellbeing.

In addition to restrictions on Fido, the farmer may encourage you to wash your hands before picking your own berries or after using the portable toilet. Or they may ask you not to visit the farm if you are sick. Foodborne disease outbreaks are often traced back to sick people or unclean hands that are touching food. And we all know that when we are choosing our fresh produce we have to handle at least six or seven tomatoes or cucumbers or whatever before we find the one that we are happy with.

Farms are also limiting public access to their farm animals. Some of this has resulted from farm visitors getting sick after handling baby goats or chickens. These animals may carry pathogens (the microbes that make us sick) with no outward signs of illness. Another farm no longer lets visitors feed goats, as there is no on-label rabies vaccination available for goats. While they may use an off-label product, perhaps one that is approved for other farm animals, technically, the goats are not vaccinated. Famers do not want customers inadvertently contracting rabies from one of their animals.

Food Safety for Artisan Cheesemakers

cheese productionDr. Dennis D’Amico has been working with North Carolina State University to convert his cheese food safety workshop into an online program. They recently launched the online course: Food Safety for Artisan Cheesemakers. The course will be offered at no cost until the end of the year by using the code INTRO-FREE.   To enroll : https://foodsafety.ncsu.edu/food-safety-basics-artisan-cheesemakers/.


The course was designed to assist Artisan and Farmstead Cheese-makers to develop/refine their food safety programs to protect consumers and comply with food safety regulations. It is intended to equip cheese-makers with knowledge of basic food safety concepts and introduce a number of best practices/preventive controls.  The class was developed at North Carolina State University in a collaborative effort of food safety and cheese experts from the University of Connecticut, the Center For Dairy Research, Cornell University, the Innovation Center for US Dairy, and includes extensive input from Artisan Cheesemakers.  The course begins with a welcome letter and orientation to online learning and then has five interactive learning modules with professional voiceover, video, and an accompanying quiz:
 
Lesson 1: Importance of Food Safety
Lesson 2: Regulations and Standards
Lesson 3: Food Safety Hazards
Lesson 4: Good Manufacturing Practices and Process Controls
Lesson 5: Environmental Pathogen Monitoring and Testing

So, You Want to Preserve Your Famous Salsa…

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH, RD

Extension Educator/Food Safety

canning tomatoesEvery year, about this time, I am spending time on the phone, talking people out of canning. Well, not exactly. I strongly encourage canning as a way to preserve summer tomatoes, peaches, apples and cucumbers (often as pickles). But, invariably I will answer the phone and on the other end of the line is someone who wants to can their FAMOUS salsa recipe (or pickles, or pesto, or peppers in oil). While I could write volumes on “What Not to Can”, salsa is the subject of this article.

The word “salsa” is the Spanish word for sauce. The Encyclopedia of American Food & Drink reports that the first mention of the term “salsa” appeared in print in the U.S. in 1962. As of 1991, they said, sales of salsa surpassed ketchup.

The origins of these sauces may be Aztec, when the traditional ingredients included tomatoes and chili peppers. But the creative cook can easily find recipes using a variety of ingredients such as beans, mangos, pineapple, grilled corn, avocado, or peaches. Historically, “salsa” was considered an uncooked sauce (salsa fresco or salsa cruda). But, in the interest of convenience, salsa is now most often processed in glass jars and found on the supermarket shelf next to taco shells, tortillas and refried beans (or in plastic tubs in the produce section).

Making and canning salsa in a commercial processing operation is one thing. Doing it at home is another.

Most salsa recipes are a mixture of low-acid foods (such as onions and peppers), with more acid foods (such as tomatoes). Often, there are additional acid ingredients that may include vinegar and citrus juices such as lemon, lime, or orange.

The types and amounts of ingredients used in salsa, as well as the preparation method, are important considerations in how a salsa is canned. Generally, acid foods (tomatoes, fruits) are safely canned in a boiling water bath canner. So folks may think that a tomato or fruit based salsa would also be safely canned in a water bath canner. However, once you add low-acid ingredients such as onions, peppers, black beans, corn, cilantro or avocado, the pH (measure of acidity) balance may be tipped to the low-acid side. At this point, the pH is likely at 4.6 or higher and the only safe way to can the product is in a pressure canner (to safely can in a water bath canner the product pH must be below 4.6).

If a salsa has enough low acid ingredients to render the final product, “low acid” by definition, then you run the risk of having a salsa that will support the production of deadly toxin by the Clostridium botulinum bacteria. Improperly canned salsas or other tomato-pepper combinations have been implicated in more than one outbreak of botulism poisoning. Follow these considerations for safe salsa:

Choose and use safe ingredients

The acid ingredients help preserve canned salsas and make them safe for water bath canning. Most often bottled vinegar or bottled lemon juice is used. Use only commercial and bottled products. An equal amount of bottled lemon juice may be substituted for vinegar in recipes, but do not substitute vinegar for lemon juice. This substitution will result in a less acid and potentially unsafe canned salsa. If the product is to “acidic” or tart for your taste, add a bit of sugar to offset. Do NOT cut down on the acid!

Tomatoes and/or fruit ingredients should be just ripe, free of cuts, rot, or mold. Do not reduce the quantity in the recipe. Overripe tomatoes may be too low in acid for safety. If green mangoes are called for in the recipe, do not use ripe mangos as they also may be too low in acid for safety.

Peppers, onions, and other low acid ingredients must also be added in amounts given in the recipe. An extra pepper might just throw you into the low acid realm…measure and count carefully.

Spices such as cumin, dried oregano, salt and pepper can be adjusted to taste. However, fresh herbs such as cilantro (a low acid ingredient) should be added according to the recipe. You can always add the fresh herbs just before serving for the freshest flavor.

Choose and use a safe recipe

The USDA/Extension mantra has always been, “Only use tested, science-based home-canning recipes from reliable sources like the National Center for Home Food Preservation and some equipment or home preserving ingredient manufacturers.” This is especially true for any acidified food like salsa or pickles. Then, follow the directions, ingredient list, and amounts listed in the recipe. Never add flour, cornstarch or other thickeners—this will have an effect on the processing time needed to heat the interior product to a safe temperature. Store opened salsa in the refrigerator once opened.

If you want to stick with a personal favorite recipe, there are two things you can do. Can a basic salsa and add additional ingredients (beans, corn, avocado) just before serving. Or, make your FAMOUS salsa and store it in the refrigerator for up to one week or freeze it for up to one year. Freezing will certainly affect the texture of your fresh salsa, so test out a small portion first to see if you like it.

For more information about making and preserving salsa, go to www.uga.edu/nchfp (National Center for Home Food Preservation). On that site you will find the fact sheet (some of the information in this article was from this fact sheet), Canning Your Own Salsa Recipe. Or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Keeping Farm Fresh Veggies and Fruits Fresh

Keeping those farm fresh veggies and fruits fresh

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

 

Recently I had a call from a mom asking if she should wash her berries before storing in the fridge. Her 30-something daughter, who, of course, knows everything, insisted that she should wash first. The mom wasn’t so sure. In this case, mom knew best.

I too, after a weekend visit to the farm market, am faced with the task of preparing the produce for storage, some of which carry vestiges of field dirt, or may be wet from a recent wash in the packinghouse. I don’t want them to spoil before I can eat them all. And, most of all, I do not want to waste what is edible.

So what is the best way to treat your veggies and fruits and ensure that they will be in the best condition when you go to use them? Well, it depends. Fresh fruits and vegetables require different storage methods and can be stored for various lengths of time.

Best at room temperature—until cut

First, know that some fruits and vegetables keep their quality better if NOT stored in the refrigerator. These include fresh tomatoes, potatoes, onions (except for spring onions and scallions, which must be refrigerated), winter squash, pumpkin and melons, until ripe, then refrigerate. However, once any of these are cut open, they should be refrigerated. Fruits and vegetables stored at room temperature should be in a cool, dry, pest-free, well-ventilated area separate from household chemicals.

Best in the refrigerator

To wash or not to wash? Even the experts disagree when giving advice on washing garden produce. Some tell you not to wash before storage and some will tell you to wash off any garden dirt before even bringing produce into the home. At issue is this: if you bring in garden dirt on your fresh produce, you may be introducing pathogenic microorganisms into your kitchen—while, if you wash your produce before storage, you run the risk of increasing the likelihood that your fresh produce will mold and rot more quickly.

If you choose to wash produce before storage, be sure to thoroughly dry fruits and vegetables with a clean paper towel. If you choose to store without washing, take care to shake, rub or brush off any garden dirt with a paper towel or soft brush while still outside. Never wash berries until you are ready to eat them (Mom was right). Storing fresh produce in plastic bags or containers will minimize the chance that you might contaminate other foods in the refrigerator. Keep your refrigerator fruit and vegetable bin clean. Keep your refrigerator at 40° F or less. If your refrigerator has a fruit and vegetable bin, use that, but be sure to store fresh produce away from (above) raw meats, poultry or fish.

All stored produce should be checked regularly for signs of spoilage such as mold and slime. If spoiled, toss it out. All cut, peeled or cooked vegetables or fruits should be stored in clean, covered containers in the refrigerator at 40° F or less.

Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Storage Chart

Fruit/Vegetable Storage method/time Tips
Beans, green or yellow Refrigerator crisper: up to 3 days Store in plastic bags. Do not wash before storing. Wet beans will develop black spots and decay quickly. Wash before preparation.
Broccoli Refrigerator crisper: 3 to 5 days Store in loose, perforated plastic bags.  Wash before using.
Beets, Carrots, Parsnips, Radish, Turnips Refrigerator crisper: 1 to 2 weeks Remove green tops and store vegetables in plastic bags. Trim the taproots from radishes before storing.  Wash before using.
Berries Refrigerator crisper: 2-3 days Before storing berries, remove any spoiled or crushed fruits. Store unwashed in plastic bags or containers.  Do not remove green tops from strawberries before storing.  Wash gently under cool running water before using.
Chard Refrigerator crisper: 2-3 days. Store leaves in plastic bags. The stalks can be stored longer if separated from the leaves.  Wash before using.
Corn Refrigerator crisper: 1 to 2 days For best flavor, use corn immediately.  Corn in husks can be stored in plastic bags for 1 to 2 days.
Cucumbers Refrigerator crisper: up to 1 week Wipe clean and store in plastic bags.  Do not store with apples or tomatoes.  Wash before using.
Herbs Refrigerator crisper: 2 to 3 days Herbs may be stored in plastic bags or place upright in a glass of water (stems down). Cover loosely with plastic bag.
Lettuce, spinach and other greens Refrigerator crisper: 5 to 7 days for lettuce; 1 to 2 days for greens Discard outer or wilted leaves. Store in plastic bags in the refrigerator crisper. Wash before using.
Melons At room temperature until ripe

Refrigerator: 3 to 4 days for cut melon

For best flavor, store melons at room temperature until ripe. Store ripe, cut melon covered in the refrigerator.  Wash rind before cutting.
Nectarines, Peaches, Pears Refrigerator crisper: 5 days Ripen the fruit at room temperature, and then
refrigerate it in plastic bags. Wash before eating.
Peppers Refrigerator crisper: up to 2 weeks Wipe clean and store in plastic bags.  Wash before using.
Summer squash, patty pan Refrigerator: 2-3 days Wipe clean and store in plastic bags.  Wash before eating.
Tomatoes Room temperature; once cut, refrigerator crisper: 2 to 3 days Fresh ripe tomatoes should not be stored in the refrigerator.  Refrigeration makes them tasteless and mealy. Wipe clean and store tomatoes at room temperature away from sunlight.  Wash before eating. (Refrigerate only extra-ripe tomatoes you want to keep from ripening any further.) Store cut tomatoes in the refrigerator.

For a more inclusive list of produce likely to be purchased from your local farm market, go to www.foodsafety.uconn.edu and go to Storing Fresh Garden Produce.

Fresh produce can be a source of the microorganisms that cause foodborne illness. The consumer shares responsibility for the safety of the produce they eat. Store safely in a clean refrigerator or storage area; when it is time to prepare your fruits and vegetables for eating, be sure to wash well: do not soak produce in water, but rinse well or dunk and swish in water just to cover, using fingers or scrub brush as appropriate. There is no need use special veggie washes or bleach in the wash water.

For more information on washing and storing fresh fruits and vegetables, contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Food Safety and Foodborne Illness: There Will Always Be Surprises

By:           Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

dole spinach
Photo: FDA

I took on food safety as a focus of my Extension programming in the early 1990’s: little did I know that for the next 20-plus years my food safety educator life would be full of surprises. Early on, the issues were what a consumer would expect them to be—salmonella and eggs, salmonella and chicken, seafood as a source of a variety of foodborne illnesses. After all, these are all animal based products, high in protein, low in acid, the perfect breeding ground for the bacteria that cause much foodborne illness.

But at the same time, Listeria monocytogenes was an emerging pathogen that would soon become ubiquitous in the food processing industry. We learned that E. coli COULD survive an acid environment such as apple cider. And then came an onslaught of outbreaks related to fresh produce, which heretofore was not considered what were called, potentially hazardous foods or PHF, in the FDA Model Food code.

Like all science, the science of food safety is ever evolving. And so too are the unfortunate targets of the microorganisms that cause foodborne illness.

Some of the surprises over the years have resulted in additional regulation. The Jack in the Box E. coli outbreak (as well as others), was one driver of the 1996 USDA “Mega-reg” that required all meat and poultry processing plants to develop food safety systems based on HACCP or Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point programs. These programs lay the onus on the industry to identify the food safety hazards that could potentially affect their products and/or processes and to adopt controls to prevent the hazards or at least to minimize the risk of a foodborne illness from these hazards once their product gets into commerce and ultimately the consumer.

Similarly, it was a series of outbreaks affecting apple cider, apple juice (Odwalla, 1994) and other fresh juices that resulted in the FDA Fresh Juice HACCP regulation in 2001.

The FDA Food Code has also adapted over time as new foods or food processes have added risk to foods that weren’t identified as hazards in previous editions. Currently, seed sprouts, sliced melons, sliced tomatoes, and cut lettuces are all considered time-temperature for control foods (formerly PHF). Each of these were added following outbreaks that affected them. All are low acid foods that support the growth of microorganisms.

So, yes, outbreaks can surprise us. Consider some of the food products that have shown up in the news recently.

  • Deer antler tea and botulism—affected two in California. (Maybe the biggest surprise here is that someone actually drinks deer antler tea?)
  • coli in flour, including a rare form, O121 in a Canadian flour source
  • Botulism in carrot juice (was mishandled by consumers)
  • A variety of outbreaks tied to pet food
  • Frozen vegetables: this Listeria outbreak and subsequent recalls affected as many as 350 consumer products sold under 42 brand names.
  • Chicken pot pies (a result of unclear labeling, consumer handling)
  • Not an outbreak, but still a hazard—golf balls in hash browns?
  • Pepper and other spices in ready to eat products (coatings on cheese or salami), in spice mixes and simply on their own in a bottle.

Sometimes, it is not the outbreak that surprises us, but the extent of the consequences. Raw milk is an example of this. Outbreaks tied to raw milk are not unusual, but a soon to be released report from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that unpasteurized milk and cheese products caused 96% of illnesses attributed to dairy products. This is an important statistic.

In several recent outbreaks, including the Peanut Corporation of America and the Jensen Brothers Farm Listeria outbreak in cantaloupe, the owners and some employees of the companies were arrested and given hefty fines, probation, and in some cases, prison sentences.

Lessons learned, changes made

There will always be surprises. In my food safety courses for industry personnel, I use some of these examples as lessons for those who insist that an outbreak or recall will never happen to them. The Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) was itself the end result of many surprises. The foods regulated by the FDA are not under as much scrutiny as those regulated by the USDA. Inspections are less frequent. Businesses really do need to take responsibility for the safety of their food as the government agency that oversees them simply does not have the resources to do so. So after a series of outbreaks tied to FDA regulated foods (peanut butter, cheese, spinach, melon, sprouts, pet foods and others) that were not previously required to have a food safety program in place, FSMA was adopted. Included in the regulation were rules addressing fresh produce, processed foods (except those currently under HACCP regulations such as juice and seafood), pet foods and imports. A thriving third party audit industry has also developed as customers of food processors seek greater assurances that the products they are buying are produced under a food safety program.

What is a consumer to do?

Consumers should simply remain vigilant. Keep up on recalls or outbreaks that affect the foods you eat. If you like to get emails, you can sign up for notifications of recalls on both the FDA site (www.fda.gov) and the USDA Food Safety Inspection Service site (www.fsis.usda.gov). Consider using shopper loyalty cards when your supermarket makes them available. They are often used to contact consumers who may have purchased a product associated with an outbreak or recall.

A more reasonable approach may simply to be to learn about how you get sick from food. Learn about the importance of temperature controls, including cooking times and temperatures, keeping cold foods cold, and cooling foods properly. Learn about cross contamination of ready to eat foods with contaminated foods (raw meat), dirty hands or dirty countertops. Don’t eat raw foods that should be cooked for safety (raw, undercooked meat or eggs or doughs for example) and handle ready to eat foods like lettuce and cantaloupe carefully. Follow cooking instructions on the processed foods you buy—especially if you are using a microwave oven. You can learn about how to handle food safely at the UConn Food Safety website (www.foodsafety.uconn.edu) or by visiting www.foodsafety.gov .

In other words, take responsibility for the foods that you handle. While that may not ensure that you will be forever free from foodborne illness, at least you will be less likely to be the cause of that illness.

Getting Ready for Home Preservation Season

By Diane Wright Hirsch, MPH

Senior Extension Educator/Food Safety

As the end of June looms, back yard gardeners and farmers alike are beginning to see the fruits (and vegetables) of their labor. Already we are enjoying locally grown spinach, lettuces, herbs and other greens, peas, and perhaps locally grown broccoli and cabbage. Asparagus season is over, and strawberries, thanks to a later season, may be around for a few more weeks. But as we go through July, we can look forward to blueberries, summer raspberries, green beans, beets, cucumbers, peppers, and the holy grail of fresh sweet corn and field tomatoes. So far the growing season has been blessed with sufficient rain and good weather, crops are happy and will likely be very productive.

So, now is the time to begin preparations for safe home food preservation, whether you have a garden or a favorite farm or farmers’ market.

First, determine what method of home food preservation works best for you. Your choice may depend on your preference for the resulting product (frozen vs canned green beans, for example, are very different in taste and texture); your storage space; the tools or resources you have at your disposal (Canner? Pressure canner? Separate deep freezer? Refrigerator freezer only?); and, perhaps, the cost of the process. Since most folks think that preserving at home will save them money, a recent article from the University of Maine, The Cost of Preserving Food in Maine (https://extension.umaine.edu/publications/4032e/ ), might make a good read.

They looked only at the costs of energy (in Maine) and equipment used to preserve food as the cost of the food itself varies depending on where it is purchased. When freezing, the most expensive part of the equation is the freezer itself. After that, they factored in the cost of energy and the container, which in this case was a reusable container. One time use containers and freezer bags will add to costs. Freezing was estimated at 38 cents per pound of food.

The cost of pressure canning is $1.14 per pound, while using a water bath canner will cost approximately 73 cents per pound. The difference here is the cost of the canner. A pressure canner is over three times the cost of a water bath canning pot when amortized over 20 years. (Using these figures and assuming the cost of a pound of fresh tomatoes is $3.50, and 91% of the pound is useable, the cost of a pound of home canned tomatoes is approximately $3.92. The cost of a pound of commercially canned tomatoes is about 92 cents.*)

Finally, dehydration is a rather costly operation in this part of the world at 99 cents per pound. You must use an electric dehydrator to be successful as the climate (some heat, more humidity) will not allow us to use the sun alone.

The differences may not seem significant unless you are putting away large quantities of food. I had always thought that freezing was the most expensive option. Not according to this study. The efficiency of modern freezers has probably changed this.

Once you decide which method you will use, then start gathering your supplies. As someone who likes to procrastinate, local sources can get depleted over the course of the summer season. Online sources are more reliable as it gets closer to September.

If freezing:

  • If you need to purchase a freezer, keep in mind that a full freezer is more efficient. Buy only the space you need, do not overbuy. An upright is less efficient than a chest freezer, but I find it very easy to lose things in a deep chest freezer!
  • If you own a freezer, eat what you can out of your freezer to make room for the new crop.
  • Stock up on containers. Reusable are best. Make sure they are appropriate for the freezer. Some plastics will crack when frozen. Rigid containers stack more easily. If using freezer bags, again, make sure they are freezer and not simply food storage bags.
  • A permanent marker and freezer tape or labels are essential as well.

If canning:

  • Purchase a new or check the condition of your water bath canner. The water bath canner or large pot should be clean, have a lid, and a rack to hold the jars off the bottom. Be sure you can locate all the pieces and replace what might be missing.
  • Purchase a new pressure canner or, if you already own one, keep in mind that a pressure canner with a dial gauge needs to be tested yearly. Have that done now. We do pressure gauge testing here at the office (hirsch@uconn.edu) or call 203.407.3163. If you cannot make it here, you can send gauges to your canner manufacturer to be tested. That will take some time, so get it done as soon as possible. Be sure to check your gasket and other rubber parts to make sure they are not dried out or cracked. If they are, replace them. Make sure there is a rack to keep jars off the bottom of the canner.
  • Check your supply of jars, lids and rings. The sealing compounds on lids can dry up and crack. Check the date on the box. If older than two or three years, it would be best to buy new. If jar rings are rusty, you should replace them. Check your jars. If the rims are chipped or cracked, replace with new. A chipped rim will prevent a good seal from forming.
  • Find or replace your other tools: timers, spatulas, jar lifters, ladles, funnels, etc.

If dehydrating:

  • Purchase or check on your dehydrator to make sure that it is working and that you have sufficient racks or screens.
  • Purchase your storage equipment, whether it is freezer bags, canning jars or other air tight, food-safe containers.

Of course, when you get ready to can, freeze or dehydrate, be sure to make sure all of your equipment is cleaned with detergent and hot water prior to using. Follow instructions for preparing canning jars and lids.

Last, but not least, update your information regarding safe home food preservation. Check with the National Center for Home Food Preservation http://nchfp.uga.edu/. In addition to safe processing methods, they also have a blog that provides timely information and advice: https://preservingfoodathome.com/. The Ball Blue Book, generally recognized by Extension food safety professionals as safe, is updated regularly.

*Based on figures from USDA/ERS Fruit and Vegetable Prices, 2015

For more information on home food preservation, go to foodsafety.uconn.edu or contact the Home and Garden Education Center at ladybug@uconn.edu or 1-877-486-6271.

Connecting with Emergency Preparedness Resources

Article by Mary Ellen Welch

beach houseEmergency preparedness is an issue for an increasing number of people and families. No matter the season, take steps in advance, and be ready for storms or other natural disasters. Personal experiences with storms – Tropical Storm Irene (2011), Sandy (2012) – and conditions that produce snow, winds, flooding and storm surge, serve as reminders. Weather events can impair your health and safety, limit access to roads, cause property and tree damage and loss of electricity.

At the Universities of Connecticut and Rhode Island, a team of Extension and Sea Grant educators is addressing coastal preparedness through a USDA-NIFA Special Needs grant. UConn Extension has created a preparedness education program to help people, including those with pets and livestock, prepare for storm emergencies. UConn Extension’s EDEN (Extension Disaster Education Network) website contains a compilation of emergency preparedness resources designed by experts.

The collaborative team includes Mary Ellen Welch, disaster preparedness team leader; Robert Ricard, UConn EDEN team leader; Juliana Barrett, coastal preparedness; Karen Filchak, family and community development; Diane Wright Hirsch, food safety; Joyce Meader, dairy and livestock; Jenifer Nadeau, equine specialist; Faye Griffiths-Smith, family economics and resource management; and Pamela Rubinoff, University of Rhode Island, coastal resilience specialist.

Pamela Rubinoff is developing Rapid PACE (rapid Property Assessment of Coastal Exposure), a storm mapping, assessment and planning tool, so municipal officials, coastal communities and residents can assess potential storm hazards. The tool aggregates existing high resolution map data from multiple sources and will generate user friendly reports that summarize the potential impacts of storms upon specific parcels of land in coastal Rhode Island.

In Connecticut, focus groups met in four coastal communities – East Lyme, Old Lyme, Groton and Stonington. A diverse group of community representatives participated – fire marshals, emergency/health managers, social services, school and library personnel, housing/senior center directors and beach association members. Their knowledge about local residents and resources is guiding the team to reach audiences with functional needs; people living alone without family nearby; people with limited English proficiency; part-time residents or visitors; the large and mobile military service population; seniors and families.

Juliana Barrett is assisting communities with finding new ways to reach both their year round residents and transient populations who might be on vacation for a weekend or a couple of weeks. By developing flyers for rental units with pertinent information, she hopes to engage people in what to do and where to go should an emergency occur.

“Prepare your family now so they will feel in control when severe weather arises,” affirms Faye Griffiths-Smith. “Have emergency kits as well as a plan for communicating if you are separated. A pre-determined place you will go can make dealing with a stressful situation more manageable. Review these plans and your emergency supplies periodically.”

Karen Filchak recommends, “Think about and prepare for situations where property may be damaged, lost or destroyed. Do you have insurance information for repairs, records to prove ownership of a vehicle that floated away or documents to prove the value of the contents of your home? Having the appropriate documents and financial information will help in recovery from the impacts of a destructive event.”

Food and water safety/provisions is a health issue during and after storms. The UConn Extension Food Safety website has publications on: pre-storm shopping, whether you should keep or discard food during a power outage and what to do if garden produce becomes flooded. Interior and exterior household preparation may limit loss and can impact your health and comfort during storms.

The UConn EDEN website contains pet friendly advice about necessary pet provisions whether staying at home or away. “Livestock typically are housed in their barns during storms,” indicates Joyce Meader. “Keep barns in good structural condition so they will protect animals and keep them safe.”

“It is never too early to begin planning for the possibility of a disaster,” advocates Jenifer Nadeau. “Hopefully you never have to experience one, but being prepared is half the battle.” A microchipping clinic is being offered this fall as an additional way to help identify horses.

Meat and Poultry Hotline for Food Safety Info

USDA logo

USDA Expands Meat and Poultry Hotline Hours to Further Provide Food Safety Information to Consumers

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) announced that it is increasing the delivery of safe food handling and preparation information by expanding the hours of its Meat and Poultry Hotline and Ask Karen chat services.  As detailed in the Agency’s 2017-2021 Strategic Plan, FSIS is focusing on the reduction of foodborne illness, and one way to contribute to that reduction is to increase public awareness of safe food handling information.

FSIS’ Meat and Poultry Hotline has been educating consumers since 1985. The toll-free telephone service assists in the prevention of foodborne illnesses by answering consumers’ questions about the safe storage, handling and preparation of meat, poultry and egg products. Beginning today, the hotline will be open for two additional hours, from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. ET.

“Our hotline provides a valuable service in educating consumers about how to safely prepare food,” said FSIS Administrator Al Almanza. “By keeping the hotline open an additional two hours, we are expanding our reach to allow more consumers, including those on the West Coast, to have their food safety questions answered.”

The hotline is accompanied by Ask Karen, a 24-hour online service that provides answers to thousands of frequently asked questions and also allows consumers to email or live-chat with a food safety specialist during operating hours.

For 32 years the Meat and Poultry Hotline has answered questions about food manufacturer recalls, food poisoning, food safety during power outages, and the inspection of meat, poultry and egg products. From novice cooks roasting their first turkey to experienced food handlers asking about foodborne bacteria, the Meat and Poultry Hotline has answered more than 3 million calls since its inception.

“Our hotline staff are experts in their field and have backgrounds in nutrition, food technology and public health,” said Almanza. “Experts are available to talk with people in English and Spanish, so we are able to help address the food safety needs of diverse communities.”

Consumers can contact the Meat and Poultry Hotline to speak to a live food expert at 1-888-674-6854, or visit Ask Karen to chat or email (in English or Spanish), Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Eastern Time/7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Pacific Time.

Online Course Catalog of Extension Programs

course catalog imageThere are more than one hundred UConn Extension specialists working throughout Connecticut. These educators are teaching and training in local communities, sharing their experience and knowledge with residents through a variety of programs. These instructional activities now will be easily accessible with the creation of an online extension course catalog.

Extension classes address a wide range of topics, including issues related to agriculture and food systems, the green industry, families and community development, land use and water, nutrition and wellness as well as numerous 4-H and youth activities. The website uses these groupings and an A to Z index so finding offerings is simple and straightforward. Each program links to a page with information on the objectives, goals, components, intended audience, the time of year and how often programs run and a link to the program’s website, that provides additional information.

As part of a nationwide network through the University of Connecticut College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources, Extension professionals and trained volunteers engage the state’s diverse population to make informed choices and better decisions. The partnerships enrich our lives and our environment.

View the course catalog online at http://s.uconn.edu/courses.