Food Storage Scares: What’s lurking in that can?

Ace Stryker – Daily Herald
Provo, Utah
Friday, 14 November 2008

Food storage is a hallmark of Utah County’s prevailing religion and a growing trend as the economy slows. But there are some things that just don’t belong in a can, according to one Utah County expert.

Fruits, veggies and meats are fine with the proper precautions, but other foods with low acidity don’t make good canning candidates, said Jana Darrington, family consumer science agent for the Utah State University extension in Provo. When canned at home, items like butter and breads can provide fertile grounds for the paralytic illness botulism, she said.

“We’re just in the beginning stages of researching and trying to develop a safe method,” Darrington said. “Commercial enterprises have certain equipment and an ability to process that we can’t do in our own kitchen.”

Caused by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, botulism is a rare but potentially fatal illness. It tends to show up in canned goods when three criteria are met: low or no oxygen, low acidity and a little bit of moisture. Butter is one such food, Darrington said.

“Butter is 17 percent water,” she said. “We don’t know if there is any safe method for canning butter at home at this point.”

Conventional prescriptions do exist in the canning world for preserving butter or margarine in cans, bottles or jars. Some even call for the boiling of the containers first to kill bacteria. But the University of Georgia’s National Center for Home Food Preservation issues this warning on its Web site: “If there happened to be spores of certain bacteria in there, these procedures will not destroy those spores for safe room temperature storage.”

Darrington said food storage buffs are better off buying canned butter, which is prepared safely using commercial equipment.

Bread is another point of concern for the same reasons — moisture, low acidity, no oxygen when vacuum-sealed in a can or jar. Darrington said USU researchers have devised ways to safely can bread and cake, but the results are “not palatable.” That’s because they generally rely on lemon juice to increase acidity, she said.

“Either the bread didn’t taste good but it was safe, or it was an unsafe product,” she said.

Instead, the National Center for Home Food Preservation recommends finding recipes that can be frozen. Some rumors about eggs also raise red flags: Despite what’s said, you cannot keep eggs for very long at room temperature, Darrington said. Certain recipes advocate rubbing oils on the shell to protect against salmonella. That doesn’t negate the need for cooling — eggs must be kept at or below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, she said.

More on safe canning can be found at the National Center for Home Food Preservation’s Web site, www.uga.edu/nchfp.

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