What to Know about Canning and Processing at Home

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canning_c"Food safety begins in the fields," said Michele Schermann, a research fellow in agriculture safety and health research with the University of Minnesota Extension Service. She spoke at a recent workshop for home gardeners, especially those thinking of selling their harvest or making products from their vegetables to sell at farmers markets.


Kim Ode

Yet for those who mean only to feed their families from their back-yard garden plots, the information was useful, even crucial. In the decade ending in 2006, 37 percent of food-borne outbreaks of illness were linked to produce, most of it grown in the United States. (The definition of an outbreak? As few as two people getting sick from a common original source of food.)

Yet the good news is that we're eating more fruits and vegetables. Combine that with the popularity of farmers markets, as well as people's efforts to bolster their incomes, and you have the foundation for both better nutrition and concerns about food safety.

In 2004, the Minnesota Legislature passed what's become known as the "pickle bill," laying out safety standards for home-processed and home-canned foods intended for sale at farmers markets or community events. Products covered by this legislation are pickles, vegetables or fruits having an equilibrium pH value of 4.6 or lower. If that snippet of chemistry gives you pause and you have aspirations of pickling or preserving, there's a wealth of information - and regulations - for you to study.

For example, it's important to do as much as possible to keep animals out of the garden, whether with live traps, electric fences or more homespun remedies such as dryer sheets or hair swept up from the barbershop floor.

Don't overlook the need to be clean while you're harvesting, whether it's just yourself or a crew of workers. Change rinse water frequently; after all, if you really are successfully rinsing off contaminants, they're accumulating in that bucket.

Choose varieties carefully

Deb Botzek-Linn, an extension educator in food science, said it's also important to choose the right varieties of vegetables to plant. The new lower-acid tomatoes may be great for slicing at the table, but they're not acidic enough for safe canning. To be sure, she recommends adding 1 tablespoon of bottled lemon juice to every pint of canned tomatoes.

Julie Aponte of Minneapolis was at the workshop to learn more for her business, Uptown Farmers, in which she grows organic produce on empty city lots for sale at farmers markets.

"I want to assess what to do better, so I'm working smarter, not harder," she said.

One thing was clear: There is a daunting amount of record-keeping required if you want to grow or process produce for sale. And the science that goes into a jar of homemade salsa can't be underestimated. Happily, there are lots of publications that walk you through the process, from field to farmstand. Among the best:

* Food Safety Begins on the Farm: A Grower's Guide, available through the Cornell Good Agricultural Practices Program.

* A Food Safety Plan for You, compiled by Michele Schermann and available through the University of Minnesota Agricultural Safety and Health Program.

While lauding people's efforts to grow and preserve local produce, Botzek-Linn urged newbies to read extensively. Better yet, partner with an experienced preserver, noting the call she once received from a woman who couldn't get her canning jars to seal. After going through a list of possibilities, it emerged that the problem was with the hot water bath: The woman had placed all of her filled jars in her bathtub.


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