Musings on Food Safety

by Lisa Linderman on May 5, 2011

in food preservation,opinion and navelgazing,science

Right now, I’m taking courses through the WSU Extension office to become a Certified Master Food Preserver.  Basically, it amounts to 40 hours of training and lots of reading, at the end of which I will owe a minimum of 80 hours of volunteer work passing on the information I have learned.  The purpose is to help keep people safe from food poisoning and foodborne illness, and to help people preserve their own foods in the safest, highest-quality manner possible in their own kitchens.  The WSU Extension doesn’t report to any particular agency, and takes no money from special interest groups or serve any particular agenda.

That’s all peachy, right?

Well, it’s really pointing out to me yet again the number of ways in which I “don’t fit” any particular philosophy or party line.  As a friend said about me yesterday when we were discussing another “I don’t fit either side” situation…I’m pragmatic.  I understand when a philosophical stance is useful, and when practicality rears its head.   I can fail to  trust someone’s motives, and yet still trust their conclusions or their product when I can examine the data for myself.    I can understand the science behind something, and still be comfortable leaving room for questions and new discoveries.  I can adjust when new data leads to changed recommendations, without thinking the science is invalid. (Actually, that’s how science works.  When contrary evidence arises, you modify your theory, test, and repeat.  But I digress.)

(The rest of this is taken from something I posted elsewhere, slightly modified.)

I guess it’s partly that I have a hard time seeing most things in life as black and white. I suppose that makes me seem either schizo or like I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth, or (hopefully not) like I’m just saying what people in a given situation want to hear. But it’s just that taking a solid stand on either side of a complex issue is rarely easy for me.  Complex issues tend to have good points on both sides, and I find that the truth generally lies somewhere between extremes.  One-point issues are easier. Something as nebulous and encompassing as “home food preservation” vs. “industrial food processing” is not a single-point issue.

I know from my own biology background, too much time spent waiting around hospitals, and reading about home canning and cheese making the potential risks involved in food preservation.  The risks are there whether you’re canning and preserving at home, or whether it’s happening in an industrial setting.  Some of the pathogenic organisms are carried in soil, others are omnipresent on human skin.  While it’s true that food from a clean, well-managed source and handled with good food safety practices along the supply chain carries less bacteria and less risk, no source is completely sterile.  The pathogens that cause food borne illness are present even in clean, well-raised food.   And some of the pathogens aren’t anything to screw around with.   Botulism isn’t common, but it’s a scary risk that results in severe illness, sometimes paralysis, sometimes death.  Listeria is more common, and though it’s of less risk to healthy adults, it can cause fetal malformation and miscarriage in pregnant women. Salmonella.   Heck, staphylococcus. Even some molds are toxic…aflatoxins, from molds that frequent breads and peanuts, are carcinogenic.

The large food processing facilities have the  same pathogens in their environment and foods, but they also have the controls to monitor pressure and temperature exactly, clean rooms,  and the testing equipment to check frequently to see what’s living in their foods.  Home preservers have to follow good procedures and then hope or assume that will be enough to keep their food safe.  The good news is, the procedures developed for modern home processing are very good and provide an excellent level of safety, when followed appropriately.

More and more people are home canning and pickling and drying, which is awesome.  Many are becoming highly concerned about their food sources and seeking organic foods, canning their own meats and fresh home-grown vegetables.  Some are simply reacting to a turbulent economy and rising food prices by making or raising more of their own foods.  I’m sure some of you do it successfully.  I have been doing it for years.   Problem?   I know many newcomers are taking shortcuts and not following proper sanitation procedures or processing procedures.  Heck, half of them can’t even successfully follow a recipe and constantly wonder why their jelly didn’t set, or why their peaches turned black, or how come too much stuff boiled out of their jar. (“I only left out half the sugar!” “I thought pre-treatment was too big a pain in the butt, and it’s just more chemicals.  Chemicals are evil.” “Half an inch seemed like a big waste of space in the jar, so I filled it up more.”)  Now convince me those same people are scrupulous about sterilizing jars, scalding lids, using clean towels, washing their hands, timing the processing exactly, and checking seals.  It’s ironic, really, because the whole point is to create healthier, safer foods.  Worse, I see many of the same people scoffing at proper procedures.  “My grandmother never did that.”  “There’s no way it needs to be boiled 20 minutes, 10 will be fine.”

Sure, most of them will live through it. Most home-canned things are low risk anyway (jams, jellies, pickles and salsa, the most common home canned foods, are all pretty low on the risk-o-meter.)  But more and more, people are pressure canning riskier foods, or are turning to lacto-fermenting techniques that when improperly managed can create a perfect environment for pathogens.  And as more make food at home, they’re making things in larger batches, cooling it improperly or not enough, and storing it in the fridge too long (or lord love a duck, in a pot on the stove, where they just turn it on again when they want to reheat it…yes, really.)

Again, most of the people eating stuff like that won’t get sick.  Healthy adults can generally fight off most of the common food-borne toxins.  Many of the ones that do get sick  either ignore it or fail to put their symptoms together with the home-made food they ate 1-3 days ago.  They’ll blame the flu, or a restaurant, or something else entirely.  And if that’s a risk people are willing to take, that’s fine. I do it. I haven’t bought jelly in a store in years. I live dangerously and keep farm fresh eggs on the counter for literally days.   I just wish people understood that “home” isn’t automatically “safer”, and in fact can be deadlier.   “Big producer” isn’t automatically safer either, but they do have way more checks and balances and tests in place than home producers do.  However, when a big one screws up, lots of people get sick and it gets announced on the news.   And authorities swarm in, the company loses money, and they correct the source and the problem.  Whereas when Aunt Marge poisons a bunch of people at Thanksgiving, everyone thinks they either overate, or caught the flu, and most of the time they move on none the wiser for the source of the pathogen. And then everyone gets sick again at Easter.  In either case, if there are small children, elderly adults, or immunocompromised adults eating the food, the results can be grim to deadly.

If you follow me around when I’m canning or making cheese, you may think I wash my hands an insane amount of times. You might think that washing clean dishes taken directly out of the cupboard before using them is paranoid.  Or that hosing the counters and cheese molds down with bleach water is weird. Todd thinks my refusal to eat most leftovers after 2 or 3 days is paranoid. Better paranoid than food poisoning.  Because I often share my food products with friends and family, it’s doubly important to me to make safe foods, because I would hate to make someone sick.  I don’t think I ever have, though it’s hard to know.  No one’s ever said anything, and many come and eat themselves silly at my house annually, so I take that as a good sign…

I know one reason folks are doing more home canning is a longing for something simpler, something more connected to the earth and their food sources and nature, and I think that’s awesome. The whole longing for the “good old days” and doing things like “gramma did” and “the pioneers did” is peachy…I love a good Little House book.  I love antiques.   I have a lot of old-time home skills I’ve learned as part of the same drive, and partly because I want to be prepared for that eventual Zombie Apocalypse.   But what gets glossed over in the nostalgia and the reconnecting with nature is how many people got sick and died in the past from things we don’t worry about much now, at least not in the industrialized world.  150 years ago, people died frequently from things like cholera (lack of sanitation) or simple infected wounds or systemic infections  (no antibiotics), or got sick from eating food that had bacteria in it because they had no refrigeration and no real clear understanding of the mechanisms of food poisoning. If your meat is green, cut off the green part and eat the rest, it looks fine, right? (Actually,as a side note, rotten food might not have dangerous pathogens in it, and food that looks fine might be teeming with something deadly.  Now you know.)   And it also glosses over that there was often no option; eat what you have or starve. Preserve what you have or starve.  In that case, some effort at preservation is better than none.  Things were done that way because that was the only way to do it, and it was safer than what ever had come before.   Some of the techniques for preservation, like making sauerkraut, were the best way we had for hundreds or thousands of years, and under modern scrutiny are still safe.  Some of them, like pulling a tablecloth over the Thanksgiving meal to keep out the dust and flies and the family dog, not such a good idea.

Industrial processes, such as mass-produced canning, was a revolution at the time it was introduced.  Some processes,  including the chemical cocktails and overpasteurization that produce shelf-stable foods that wouldn’t ordinarily be stable (milk, broth, meats, etc.) were seen as somewhat miraculous at the time.   We’re now realizing as a culture that it was probably merely a tradeoff, a “next step” in our pursuit of ever-better ways to preserve our food and feed ourselves in new, creative, tasty, easy ways. We sacrificed nutrition and some measure of “safety” in terms of bodily chemical loads and unnatural foods in exchange for convenience and ease of preparation and the ability to store foods long term with little risk of being poisoned and no need for refrigeration.  That doesn’t make the shelf-stable foods evil, it makes them what they are. Whether it’s worth the tradeoff is the current question on the table, and it’s being answered with a resounding NO by many people who choose to make their own foods from scratch and monitor the sources of their foods, the substances added, and the methods by which natural foods are manipulated until they barely resemble anything natural.  I’m one of them, much of the time.  HFCS, artificial sweeteners, they’re out.  Margarine is out, butter is in.  But vilifiying the creation of these formerly-miracle foods misses the greater historical context of the conditions that led to their creation in the first place.

There’s definite validity in the concept of eating whole fresh foods, in utilizing lacto-fermenting techniques to preserve enzymes and get good bacteria into our guts, eating foods made with fewer chemicals, avoiding overprocessed foods and nutrient-void foods like white sugar. Absolutely.  And as science realizes the dangers of chemicals like BPA, it makes sense to switch to another option for storage or cooking on a personal front; eventually the manufacturers will catch up, just ahead of the discovery of something else to avoid.  (Why plastics with BPA in the first place?  Because glass breaks, and metal corrodes and both are heavy and expensive.  Was a time when plastic was the miracle revolution too.  Again, historical context.  Me, I’m using more and more glass and ceramic and less and less plastic.)    And making food from scratch, heck yeah.  I’m all about that. Cheaper and tastes better, IMHO, and the control of the ingredients is easier.  Allergens are easier to avoid.  Catering to particular tastes is easier. And storing your good homemade food for later…I’m also all about reducing waste and having convenient foods I made myself instead of grabbing a Hot Pocket or what have you. But throwing out the baby with the bathwater by condemning all industrial canning/preserving/mass food processing techniques as inherently bad and evil or unsafe simply because they are “industrial”, and declaring anything one does “home made” to be superior in either quality or safety to me seems to be adopting a party line blindly without really examining the pros and cons of both sides.

The entire food system worldwide needs an overhaul for sure, from the ground up and starting yesterday, but having everyone in industrialized nations return to canning all their own stuff and preserving all their own foods is a giant step backwards.  Better to fix it, to transform our food supply chain and agricultural system into one that has the potential to deliver the safest, cheapest, cleanest food to the most people around the world, and not just to people who can afford it or are lucky enough to have access to it.  Unfortunately, how to do that in the light of large corporations and their lust for profit taking over the universe, I have no idea.  Home canning and food preservation is definitely a good alternative in the meantime, and always a good skill to have in case of that Zombie Apocalypse.  But I seriously hope people soon understand that “home” or “unprocessed” or “untreated” doesn’t automatically translate to “safer”, and take the measures needed to protect themselves and their families while preserving their carefully selected, wholesome foods.  Otherwise, I fear a return to the days where food poisoning was common, and this time it won’t be Big Ag responsible.  It’ll be Aunt Marge.