August 4, 2005
Prairie Fare: Pondering the Safety of Pickled Products
I get many questions daily in my job as a food and nutrition specialist. A pickling question that arrived by e-mail yesterday got me thinking about the safety of pickling recipes widely circulated via the Internet, in cookbooks and among well-intentioned friends and relatives.
The trouble is that most of these recipes haven’t been tested for safety.
Here’s an e-mail question from a woman. “I have a recipe for canning dilly beans. It calls for fresh green beans, dill, garlic, cayenne pepper, water, salt and vinegar. It’s tasty (especially in bloody Marys). The recipe calls for processing in a hot-water bath. I’m worried the beans will spoil. All the other recipes for beans call for pressure canning, but I’m afraid of the pressure canner.”
She was right to be concerned. Without knowing the formula she was using, however, it was impossible to say for sure that her recipe was “safe.” The alcohol in the bloody Mary she mentioned wouldn’t make it safe, either!
Canning is a science, while “cooking” is an art. There’s not a lot of room for creativity when canning. Altering ingredients and proportions can result in a deadly mixture.
Improperly home-canned vegetables have led to cases of botulism, a potentially deadly foodborne illness. Listeria bacteria have raised concern in some unprocessed refrigerator pickle recipes.
Wide varieties of tested pickling recipes are available. With the right recipe and procedure, you safely can pickle beans, onions, peppers, tomatoes, zucchini, beets and many other vegetables.
With untested formulations, you could have a “recipe for disaster.”
USDA recipes undergo continual review. Sometimes recipes are removed for public safety reasons. For example, recipes for “refrigerator dill pickles” were removed from USDA materials when it was discovered that Listeria monocytogenes bacteria could survive in home-fermented refrigerator dill pickles.
Listeria is a particularly problematic type of bacteria. It’s often found in raw milk, soft-ripened cheese, raw vegetables, raw meat, poultry and fermented raw-meat sausage. It grows at refrigerator temperatures and can survive in acidic conditions.
Listeriosis, the condition associated with Listeria, is particularly risky for children, the elderly, immune-compromised and pregnant women. It can cause a miscarriage among pregnant women. When you consider that pregnant women often crave dill pickles, you can see the issue.
Here are some rules for safe pickling at home from USDA:
Here’s an example of the research-tested recipes you’ll find online at the National Center for Home Food Preservation: www.uga.edu/nchfp/index.html.
Food preservation information also is available on the NDSU Extension Service Web site at www.ag.ndsu.nodak.edu/food.htm.