Sunday, August 1, 2010

Emergency Preparedness Message for August '10

Emergency preparedness committee topic of the month is storing the harvest.

Of course the best way to eat produce from our gardens, is fresh from the garden. However, from the time of Adam, man has found ways to store food for the winter or times of famine. Fresh food spoils for several reasons. Some foods dry out, some foods over ripen or decompose because of enzyme action, and most are subject to bacteria and mold. The successful storage of food depends on interfering with these natural ways that food spoils. While it is easy to understand that food needs to be protected from drying, protected from insects and rodents, and protected from dirt or outside moisture, it is not as easy to understand how to interfere with enzymes, bacteria, and mold.

Most enzymes that will continue to break down food are either severely slowed by freezing, or destroyed by heating to the temperature of boiling water or hotter. An example of this is the reason that corn should be blanched prior to freezing to stop the enzymes from turning sugar to starch which keeps frozen corn sweet. By destroying the enzymes in the corn, the corn can remain tasty from the freezer even after a year or more.

Bacteria and mold require very specific conditions in order to grow. If you change the conditions, you can slow their growth or stop them completely. Bacteria and molds grow very well at room temperature or slightly warmer, require moisture, and require a food source (your food). If you change the growing conditions then you will either slow their growth or prevent their growth. The classic preparation that will prevent their growth is bottling. By heating the food to the point of boiling you can kill most organisms, and by heating food hotter than boiling by pressure cooking, you can destroy all organisms. There is a great deal of scientific information about canning which is required to determine how high the temperatures need to be for certain foods to make them safe. Some microbes can even survive without any air and at fairly high temperatures so the right time and temperature is required to make food safe.

One very specific organism, Clostridium botulinum, produces a toxin called botulinum toxin which attacks the human nervous system and may cause death. Botulism occurs because the bacteria is around us found in soil, on food, and even in honey. The bacteria is very hardy and can grow easily in improperly canned food. Because the acid in tomatoes or the sugar in jams prevents its growth, pressure cooking these items is not required. In foods like corn and green beans, there are no natural impediments to its growth so these items must be pressure cooked. If all the bacteria are not killed, then they may form the toxin which is very dangerous.

This is the reason that it is important to follow recipes which have been tested by professional organizations to ensure that they are safe. Recipes which come from cookbooks, most television shows, and from the USU extension service are tested and are safe. Making up recipes for salsa, spaghetti sauce (especially those containing meat), may not be safe unless pressure cooked. When in doubt I always call the Utah State University extension service found in the phone book and talk to the home economist. They have excellent advice and I would trust them.

Another method which can be used effectively is drying. Bacteria requires moisture in order to grow and that is why dried fruits, dried meats (think beef jerky), and dried vegetables can be safely stored for extended periods.

The most important thing about storing foods is to follow proven recipes, ensure all items used are clean, follow directions carefully, and then rotate food so that we do not try to store it forever, and enjoy them. I am very happy to answer any questions, just give me a call.

Kelly Myers

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